WPSU BookMark Review of Song of Thieves by Shara McCallum
When I first heard Shara McCallum read her poems at Bucknell, where she directs the Stadler Poetry Center, I was captivated by the sound of her voice, the wave-like cadences, the rich and varied undercurrent of her Jamaican background, the ebb of joy and grief riding the tide of her words.
It is no surprise, then, that I was also pulled in by the sounds of her poetic voice, the lure of fluidity and flight. As she read, among other works, poems from The Water Between Us, Winner of the 1998 Agnes Lynch Starett Poetry Prize, the room hushed. It was time to listen. If water has a soul, this is it, the song of memory, of movement, of the mourning that floats our words. “My sisters and I/running with outstretched arms,” “Poem Where My Mother and Father Are Absent” intones, “the river calling us/to come back in/to stay among reeds,/stay floating/in its steady stream,/not return to the house/of broken windows,/thorn-covered walls,/the empty porch swing/creaking in the wind.”
It is primarily because of sound, then, that I opened the pages of Song of Thieves, McCallum’s newest collection (U of Pitt Press, 2003). From the opening lyric “Now the Guitar Begins,” to the book’s final elegy— “Once my father was a night/I mistook for salvation,/a voice I mistook for myself./Once my father/was a bird with wings of longing/and despair, a field of words/blossoming in my ear,/telling me: my child,/this is all there is” —I both heard and felt the notes. Song of Thieves cradles the rhythm of the Caribbean, while sounding the sensuousness and tumult of parents dancing toward and away from the other, toward and away from the child, and inevitably, toward and away from death. McCallum grieves both her mother’s life and her father’s death, but with a music that keeps their lives and her life moving. It is a sweet lament, strangely healing.
The book flows also with other voices—McCallum’s grandmother, the fairytale-like auto/biographies of Tanglehair, Miss Sally, a spider compelled to keep spinning, Teresa of Avila, Van Gogh—building into a crescendo that breaks at and returns to her father’s seductive songs, songs the author doesn’t always want or understand but is still drawn toward. In “ Mulatto,” she explains, “First it is like being under water,/floating beneath a stream/of gardenia: the smell/that wants to drown me”; in “Octoroon Song,” “Ask me my name,/I will say I am damask./rose hued and hewn/from divided worlds”; in “The Land of Look Behind,” “I had wanted to be a song,/the dance between/the darkness enveloping us,/the light cobwebbed within.”
Here is music that will stay past midnight, swell in your dreams, rise with what overflows from our lives—a song of thieves: sharp, shining, breaking free.