PRICE WE PAY FOR THE SUN – GRACE NICHOLS
One of the things I have loved in over twenty years of teaching is teaching poetry from other cultures because English students can fall into that tricky little trap of reading a poem from a writer from another culture and not understanding what is being shared at all. You see, they, like everyone, read any poem based on their background and experience.
Let us say for example, that a typically English student, living in the heart of the English countryside, reads this poem. He or she may not have any understanding of what it is like to live in the Caribbean, unless they see the news recently and all the mention of hurricanes and destruction. What they fail to see or understand is the harshness of normal life for some on islands in the middle of the Atlantic or Pacific. How can they understand what it is like to live there or to scavenge for work there when there isn’t any work at all and then try to understand the poem in front of them?
It is the teacher’s role to cross the boundaries of social and historical background when teaching these poems, just as much as it is for them teaching an Armitage poem and teaching their students about life as Simon Armitage sees it based on his life experience. If they are not doing that, then they are failing their students, in my humble, ageing opinion.
So, when we get to this Grace Nichols poem from her block of writing, we see someone writing about the islands she has lived on in the past. Married to John Agard will no doubt be a fun experience, but their shared love of English and of poetry allows them to write honestly, sometimes harshly and always beautifully.
Let me ask you a question. How much would you pay for the sun?
What does that mean? Can it have more than one meaning? I think this title has more than one meaning in it. After all, when she starts writing, she is doing so using Free Verse, using zero punctuation, making the reader pause at the end of each line, where punctuation should be. Because there is none there, you are supposed to pause. Thus, “These islands” becomes a statement in a way. “These islands” are home; beautiful in every way. But then she goes on to say they are not “picture postcards” that someone has created. No picture can fully bring about the fuller meaning of life on “these islands” and the reader should realise this is what she means from the beginning. She says “these islands real,” missing a word out of what we would call Standard English, using a ‘Creole’ of the English language to communicate. [If you are not sure on Creole, Google it and check please].
There is a reality for her in these islands because they are “more real than flesh and blood.” Now, we see the word “past” and we have to ask, because of the Creole style, whether or not she is saying the word in place of the word “except.” In other words, she is saying, “more real than flesh and blood except “these islands split bone.” Suddenly, there is a sense of harshness about life on these islands, as idyllic as they are. For mere British men and women, this would be a holiday destination, but to the islanders themselves, life here is nasty, brutish and for some, short. The phrase “split bone” is an interesting one, which makes the reader see that life is so tough that one has to be extra strong to survive there. But she is not being critical. She loves those islands. She loves what they stand for and what the culture is that exists there. To her, she is saying that there is no better place; there is no place like home.
In verse two, we see the poet extend those thoughts into a figure that is so central to her life, her mother. We sense closeness as we read how her “mother’s breasts like sleeping volcanoes” would be a source of rest for her when she was a youngster. By this, she is referring to those times when as a youngster, we go to mother for comfort and solace. We are in trouble, or in pain and we go to our mother for rest and peace, usually involving a huge cuddle, if we have that kind of relationship. There is then a reference to how those breasts know about the “Cancer tricking her below” and how the effect of such pain changes her mother and her mother’s outlook on life. The element of trickery is interesting too, for any kind of debilitating illness exists to wear you down until you are unable to fight any more. So, this is the poet looking back on the life [and demise] of her mother and thinking of her again. Read some of her other poems where she mentions mother and you will see her love for her shining from the poem.
But then she mentions her father and how his “tears” have been constantly whipped and turned into “salty hurricanes” showing us an element of real life on these islands. It reminds me of the poem Island Man in a way, but although the man in that poem is in London and dreaming of the Caribbean, this lady is reminiscing on the islands she lives or has lived on and is stating that these places are entrenched in her psyche. Words like “tears” and “salty hurricanes” evoke a certain image in the mind, one of pain and turmoil. This is a poor lifestyle, for certain, but it is a happy one too, for this woman inserts a glorious image at the end, as if to make her final point. She mentions “water mirroring palm” which makes me think of palm trees and the shadows they make on the sand, how the sea can make shapes that can mirror almost anything and how, after all this time away, she can see the true beauty of the place once again. It also makes one think of how nature mirrors our existence at times.
The last three lines are spectacular in their description because then we see the real meaning in her poem. This is almost polemic in its stance, for she is saying, to anyone who will read and listen, that “poverty is the price we pay for the sun.” We have sun here more or less all the time, she is saying, but the price we pay is that we remain poor. The ones with the money are outsiders. Now, the last two words, for me, can lead to confusion. At first, I was unsure how to take them. The words “run come” are oxymoronic yes, but what do they mean? The answer is that the reader is meant to consider that because of the way nature is portrayed as being brutal and that the islanders are seen as part of the land, the best thing to do is run away. There is a “run coming” may be a better way to understand the ending because she, along with her husband, did just that and emigrated from Guyana in the West Indies to a life away from their home. It is the story of so many West Indian people, who left for work and never came back. They sit in their relative luxury of home in which ever country they reside in now and look back to the motherland, their home, their sunshine paradise.
In this sense, this is a poem looking at the way nature is merged with humanity, how the islands are much more than mere images on a postcard or even, in the mind of those who are from there but have not seen home for some time. Because of that, this sits within what used to be called the ‘Poetry from Other Cultures’ section of anthologies, waiting to be read so that people from all over the world can see the reality of life for Caribbean islanders.