From the deep blue waters of memory, heritage, and invention, Shara McCallum's poems sing an innovative music that is at once mysterious and utterly familiar, fresh and wise, always lyrical. Welcome, welcome, these new poems, and this new poet.
Winner of the 1998 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize
The Water Between Us is a poetic examination of cultural fragmentation, and the exile's struggle to reconcile the disparate and often conflicting influences of the homeland and the adopted country. The book also centers on other kinds of physical and emotional distances: those between mothers and daughters, those created by being of mixed racial descent, and those between colonizers and the colonized. Despite these distances, or perhaps because of them, the poems affirm the need for a multilayered and cohesive sense of self. McCallum's language is precise and graceful. Drawing from Anancy tales, Greek myth, and biblical stories, the poems deftly alternate between American English and Jamaican patois, and between images both familiar and surreal.
W.E.B. Dubois speaks of ever feeling one's twoness, two warring bloods, two consciousnesses in the same body. McCallum's amazing first book brings this 'twoness' into brilliant focus. But its triumph is in how it enables us to perceive the invisible spaces between—the gaps in knowledge and history, the agonizing separations and distances, the losses that can't be spoken and, in the end, are untranslatable. McCallum is one of the most exciting new voices in poetry today.
In taut lyrics of landscape and loss, amid "Trees my tongue had forgotten," Shara McCallum creates a Bildungsroman that comingles the personal with the archetypal. Cast out of the garden of Jamaica as a child, she bears its tropical scent and lush residue, its salty language and sexual sting, through the laborious process of becoming: "say home /see what stays. The Water Between Us is a tough, beautiful book. Shara McCallum could be the spiritual daughter of Derek Walcott and Lucille Clifton.
Shara McCallum reminds me that there is a fresh and compelling body of literature emerging from the Caribbean that is effectively bringing dynamism, grace, and beauty to world poetry. In McCallum we witness the closest thing to a marriage between Lucille Clifton and Lorna Goodison. Her desire for truth-telling is tempered by a tenderness of sentiment, a lively capacity for irony and a facility with forms that are natural and effortlessly executed. These, quite clearly, are the strengths we expect from a poet of significant promise. The high quality of McCallum's poems is consistent throughout this collection—never flagging, always surprising and yet, always rewardingly accessible.
The poems in The Water Between Us work to a compelling cumulative effect. . . . McCallum's poems investigate childhood through the speaker's engagement in the excavation of a literal and figurative prelapsarian garden. . . The poems possess a layered allusiveness; they are both discovery and invention. This work incorporates fairy tale and myth to enlarge upon and dramatize its narrative, which is rendered in simple, clear, almost transparent language. . . . This is an arresting new voice, it sings like a 'surf rupturing herself again and again'.
Shara McCallum is well launched. Her first book, The Water Between Us is beautiful, a weak word to describe such strong poems but beautiful they are, sad and happy, amusing and sobering in their telling of identity, of grief and of pride. She has chosen wisely not to footnote or explain the words peculiar to her culture. She leaves the reader to learn from the rhythm of them all that matters, to absorb them as a child would her own language that leans not on grammar but on sound. She may be young but she is far from immature.
It's happening on the real when you hit the last page in a collection of poetry and you're ready to stomp, scream, and holler like a three-year-old because you want more. . . . One of the brightest books of poetry crafted in recent years.
McCallum's poems are startling in their breadth of experience and language . . . [they] wrestle with her own history as well as with our accepted history, and while her answers are not always pleasant, they are never without truth stolen from lies, beauty wrenched from pain.
From Jamaica, Shara McCallum is the author of five books of poetry, published in the US and UK, most recently Madwoman, winner of the 2018 OCM Bocas Poetry Prize for Caribbean Literature and the 2018 Sheila Margaret Motton Book Prize. Her work has been published in the US, the Caribbean, and Europe, has been translated into several languages, and has received such recognition as a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress and a Poetry Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Formerly the Director of the Stadler Center for Poetry, McCallum is now a Liberal Arts Professor of English at Penn State University.