Contemporary Caribbean Women's Poetry: Making Style

By Denise Decaires Narain | Go to book overview
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Literary mothers?

Una Marson and Phyllis Shand Allfrey

The purple hills are calling and the orange is in bloom,
The dew is on the Myrtle and the violets fade so soon.

[…]

Oh, I'll arise and go again to my fair Tropic Isle
For I hear voices calling and I'm so sad meanwhile. 1

Living in sunless reaches under rain,
how do exiles from enchanted isles
tend and sustain their rich nostalgic blaze? 2

Beginning this account of contemporary Caribbean women poets with a discussion of the work of Una Marson (1905-65) and Phyllis Shand Allfrey (1908-86) inevitably accords them foundational status as literary 'mother-figures'. Mindful of some of the exclusions and limitations which have resulted from feminist and Caribbeanist reconstructions of literary traditions, however, I am motivated by a desire both to trace some kind of 'literary ancestry' as well as to question the grounds upon which such a notion of 'ancestry' might be constructed. In placing Allfrey alongside Marson and exploring the possibility that they might share a similarly pioneering poetic status, the imperative is both to extend the notion of who qualifies as a literary precursor and to interrogate the grounds upon which such categories are constructed. I would suggest that considering Marson and Allfrey provisionally as foundational literary figures is a productive way to begin a discussion of contemporary Caribbean women poets, for it allows sustained attention to be given to work which has, historically, been considered marginal to 'mainstream' literary activity, but it does not foreclose on the possibility of other 'foundational-figures' being substituted in further readings of Caribbean poetry. In other words, foundations can shift. I will argue, in the chapters that follow, that many of the issues raised here continue to inform both the writing and the reception of Caribbean women's poetry.

Both Una Marson and Phyllis Shand Allfrey were writing at roughly the same time and were among the few women of their time to have more than one collection of poetry published. Both women had extended periods of cultural/ political activity in England, and elsewhere, and were involved in supportive roles

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