Writing on Women Writers

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Day, Night, Images, Sounds, and Music in “Psalm for Kingston”

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Shara McCallum


In “Psalm for Kingston,” Shara McCallum recounts vague childhood memories in her home country, Jamaica using predominantly imagery and sounds. One of the aspects of this poem I picked up on was the contrast between day and night to depict the positive and negative characteristics of this setting. McCallum sets the beginning of the poem during the daytime.

“…City of market women at Half-Way-Tree with baskets”
atop their heads or planted in front of their laps, squatting or standing
with arms akimbo, susuing with one another, clucking
their tongues, calling in voices of pure sugar come dou-dou: see
The pretty bag I have for you, then kissing their teeth when you saunter off

City of school children in uniforms playing dandy shandy
And brown girl in the ring-tra la-la-la-la—
eating bun and cheese and bulla and mangoes,
juice sticky and running down their chins, bodies arced
in laughter, mouths agape, heads thrown back…”

The two stanzas suggest daytime in several ways. We are presented the image of a market and women carrying baskets. Children are singing and playing games in school. The mood is quite positive, as words such as “pretty” and “kissing” are used, as well as the phrase, “voices of pure sugar.” Children are singing and playing games. Their hunger seems to be satisfied with a variety of things to eat. Amidst the description of the food is the phrase, “arced in laughter.” This positive portrayal of food suggests food may be one of the main things in a child’s life that produces happiness. In our culture, we need and want food all the same, but prize it less than say, ipads or computers since it is so readily available at all times. So the fact that food is depicted in such a prized manner may suggest that it is also precious, and not very abundant.

“…City where power cuts left everyone in sudden dark,
where the keroscene lamp’s blue flame wavered on kitchen walls,
where empty bellies could not be filled,
where no eggs, no milk, no beef today echoed
in shantytowns, around corners, down alleyways”

As can be seen in this stanza, McCallum was indeed foreshadowing hunger. The reference to power cuts creating sudden dark indicates night, as do corners and alleyways, which I think of as areas that are shady at night. It is stated in actual terms “empty bellies could not be filled.” The quote, no eggs, no milk, no beef today gives the reader an auditory image, creating even more of an impact.

McCallum uses this tool of authentic language often. The “tra-la-la” of children singing as well as the women “susuing” and “clucking,” are not quotes so much as they are sounds the reader can audiate to experience McCallum’s childhood world. I compare this technique to that of music, which is entirely sound, and functions to conjure imagery. One can argue that the sounds in this poem are in fact, music, just not in a conventional sense. Additionally, the repetition of phrases/words and similar form among stanzas creates a sense of rhythm within the poem. I was not surprised when I learned of McCallum’s musical background during the skype session.

Political issues and prominent Jamaican musical and political figure, Bob Marley are referenced in the second to last stanza.

“…City where Marley sang, Jah would never give the power to a baldhead
where the baldheads reigned, where my parents chanted down Babylon—Fire! Burn! Jah! Rastafari! Selassie I!–…”

Again, here are sounds that contribute to the overall mood. I don’t know what some of these words mean but I can feel meaning by the way they sound. McCallum explained that she quoted the text of a Marley song that addresses European colonization in Jamaica. This idea is what “the baldheads” references.


European colonization of Jamaica



This video addresses Marley as a political influence through his music


Bob Marley: Time Will Tell



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