Sheri-Marie Harrison on Lorna Goodison’s “For My Mother (May I Inherit Half Her Strength)”

harrison photo
Professor Sheri-Marie Harrison

 

My name is Sheri-Marie Harrison, I teach in the English Department, and I’ve been at MU since 2008. I’m a prose fiction scholar who admires many poems, but has genuine fondness for only Lorna Goodison’s poems. My favorite Goodison poem is “For My Mother (May I Inherit Half Her Strength)”, which I hadn’t actually read since I taught it in my first course here at MU. When I went to read it for the task at hand, I noticed the page was marked with a rare book collection request form that dates back to my undergraduate days at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. Today, just under two decades since I worked on the poem for an assignment in Edward Baugh’s “Love Death and Poetry” course, its place continues to be marked with a relic from that time. Back then, I not only found pleasure in its story that resonated with my own experience, but found in these moments of pleasure my first inclination for further research and critical discovery.

This poem is thus a thing of compounded nostalgia for me, personally and professionally. Among my favorite early memories of teaching at MU are ones of student enthusiasm for the accessibility of Goodison’s narrative style – her poetry’s ease in conveying both the localized specificities of Jamaican life and culture, and universal yet complex themes of love, heartbreak, loneliness, dignity, and family. I’ve always felt a kinship of daughterhood with the poem’s narrator; I was a year shy of thirty when I moved to Columbia and also felt the need to “discard absolutes.” The period of moving from Miami to Columbia became a time when my own mother’s example of grown woman strength, resilience, and endurance became very important to me, all the more so because I needed to figure out what kind of woman I was going to be and I had to do that on my own, at a great distance from my main model, who I missed terribly. Like the poem’s narrator, in a time of transition, I too looked back at my life with my mother for the lessons I would need to keep going.

While it is by no means a neat analogue – my father, while a dandy of sorts, is very much unlike the father in the poem – there are nonetheless powerful glimpses of my own mother, whose sister sent her a wedding trousseau of exquisite fabrics and linens from New Jersey; whose sewing machine turned out school uniforms for my sisters and me every year through high school; who exchanged so much of her own future so my sisters and I could chart our own futures. Goodison’s poem remains important to me because it resonates at pivotal moments of transition in a way that keeps me anchored to a home-place defined by my mother’s strength as provider, caregiver, and teacher.

from “For My Mother (May I Inherit Half Her Strength)”
Lorna Goodison

My mother loved my father
I write this as an absolute
in this my thirtieth year
the year to discard absolutes….

Read the whole poem here.

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