Island Man – Grace Nicholls

Island life seems idyllic and peaceful to Western eyes; a lifestyle that is exotic and specifically tranquil, but in reality, a lot of island folk find that their economy is such that life is harsh. Poverty exists in an island setting and therefore, islanders find themselves forced to migrate to where the work exists to be able to fill the hungry stomachs of their family members.

One such island man is detailed in Grace Nicholls’ poem of the same title. It is a short poem that shows a man, in his dreams, waking from his sleep as if he is still dreaming of the island he came from, in this instance, Guyana in the Caribbean. The man wakes to the sound of the surf but the reader finds that this is “in his head” which shares the image of the man waking and hearing sounds reminiscent of waves crashing on a sandy beach. But the phrase “in his head” is deliberately filled with ambiguity because we are left to assume it is either in a dream state, that moment where you emerge from sleep into reality and everything seems misty and faded, muffled by the half conscious state, or just the fact that he misses his island that much that it is playing tricks on his mind.

The man wakes up and hears the sound of the sea and the sand and then realises that the “roar” that he is hearing is in fact, the “dull” roar of the “North Circular” traffic, the ring road that circles the city of London. As he wakes, he imagines himself back on the sandy beaches of Guyana and almost sees himself there before reality comes crashing in and normality takes over his waking thoughts. The words “groggily, groggily” when repeated on the same line together give the reader a sense of him waking slowly, as if he almost does not want to get out of bed, as if the “soar” that he hears transports him back to a superior existence, a better time in his past. And then, when he is awake, he simply sees that he is in for “another London day.”

Nicholls has written here a very clever little poem in Free Verse, using no punctuation at all, but by using enjambment at the end of lines, she allows the reader to build a sense of pace, rather akin to the poem “Nothing’s Changed” by Tatamkhulu Afrika where he repeats the word “and” in an effort to share his rage, but in this poem, Nicholls is expressing a different emotion, that of regret. This, coupled with love for his homeland, brings an image in the mind of the reader of someone who thinks back to the island with fondness, however harsh life there might have been. The man now lives in north London, has possibly done so since the Emperor Windrush brought him here in the late 1940s and sees London as his home, but the true nature of the man is one that “still wakes to the sound” of that tropical island in his head and in his heart. To him, he is an islander first and foremost, but his sense of being British is evident as well as he exists from day to day, pulling himself out of bed as he “heaves” himself into his western life with its “dull metallic” lifestyle.

In essence, what Nicholls is trying to do here is make the reader think about notions of identity; that thing that defines us, that makes us think we are British, or Guyanan, or indeed, whatever nationality. In doing so, she sees the migration of this man as a necessary thing when it occurred, but the true nature of the man as being one borne of experience. Her experience is one of feeling as though she has one foot in British cultural life whilst at the same time having the other in the Guyanan existence. In writing this poem then, she offers an insight into what it must feel like to live such a lifestyle far away from the beauty of home.