“In the country where she lives, which is no country, the madwoman maps desire’s coordinates onto her body.” – Shara McCallum


Courtesy of Alice James Books

Hi friends! Thanks so much for your patience last Sunday! It’s been a few weeks since I’ve done a review, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been in good company. This week, I’ve been spending time with the collection Madwoman by Shara McCallum. I love the fury in these poems. As they unpack the madwoman inside all of us, McCallum offers us a powerful reflection on motherhood, race, and family. There is a hunger in these lines that is furious and electrifying. As McCallum writes, “And what would that mean: to be seen?” she shatters the shame and silence around so many women, allowing the madwoman to emerge, bold and unabashed. These poems are so daring I am surprised the pages don’t set themselves on fire.

From the beginning, McCallum delivers a collection that challenges. The poem “Memory” comes at the start of Madwoman and establishes the voice of the speaker: “No spit-shine shoes, / I’m dirt you can’t wash from your feet” (lines 3-4). This poem is haunting in its images and sensory details: “I’m bone. Rather: the sound / bone makes when it snaps. That ditty / lingering in you, like ruin” (lines 12-14). Not only does the madwoman struggle to navigate a destroyed world, but the destruction is very much a part of her identity as a speaker. This is also reflected in the poem “Oh Abuse,” where the speaker documents the complicated relationship she has with abuse: “. . . you swallowed the sun / when you came but also taught me / it never shines for any of us, exactly” (lines 12-14). Both “Memory” and “Oh Abuse” are written as single stanzas, a form McCallum often uses in Madwoman.

The poems in Madwoman take place during the speakers childhood, adulthood, and then motherhood. Many of the poems take place in Jamaica and do a powerful job of documenting what it’s like to grow up biracial (see “Race”). Aside from this, some of the best moments in Madwoman occur when the speaker examines her relationship with her mother, as well as her own relationship with her children. The poems “Hour of Duppy and Dream” as well as “Now I’m a Mother” are nicely paired in Madwoman, giving readers a nice contrast between the two perspectives. In the poem “Hour of Duppy and Dream” McCallum writes, “Before consciousness / took hold, I knew my life would be marked // by her sorrow, pressed into my skin” (line 7-9). This poem is raw and emotional, and I love the use of the couplets in both poems. The poem “Now I’m a Mother” utilizes repetition, and is biting in its use of humor and irony: “Everything I’ve said and done has come back to bite me in the ass. / Humility’s what I’m learning – time after time – now I’m a mother” (lines 5-6). Both these poems demonstrate Madwoman’s range in voice and style, as well as the tender moments that make this collection so beautiful.

In total, Madwoman is roughly 70 pages of poetry. When I saw this collection at AWP17 I knew just from the title that it would deliver a punch. I’m so glad I bought it, and as usual, I’m thankful for Alice James Books, which consistently delivers the best.

Buy Madwoman here.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Alice James Books: “Alice James Books is named after the sister of the famous philosopher William James and novelist Henry James, Alice James. She lived a largely confined and isolated life. The youngest of five children, she never married and lived with her parents until their deaths. Although her four brothers were broadly educated in the US and Europe, Alice’s education was haphazard, reflecting her father’s belief   that “The very virtue of woman… disqualifies her for all didactic dignity. Learning and wisdom do not become her.” Keenly self-aware, she started a journal in 1889, as a way of recording her own understanding of herself. She entrusted it to her friend Katherine Loring, shortly before her death in 1892, of breast cancer. Loring sent copies to her brother Henry and other family members. In 1943 it was published, in incomplete form, by a niece, who called it Alice James: Her Brothers — Her Journal. Not until 1964 was the journal published in its entirety. Alice James has since become somewhat of a feminist icon, in recognition of her struggle for self-expression within the repressive Victorian notion of femininity.” *

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