Material Information

Bamboo (in five variations)
Series Title:
Olive Senior's Gardening in the Tropics, Curated Edited Collection Online
Senior, Olive ( author )
Place of Publication:
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Hyacinth M. Simpson
Ryerson University
Publication Date:
Physical Description:
1 online resource : color illustrations


Subjects / Keywords:
Poetry, Modern ( fast )
Caribbean Area ( fast )
Manners and customs ( fast )
1900-1999 ( fast )
Poetry ( fast )
Digital Scholarship Site/Resource
digital humanities ( aat )
Spatial Coverage:
Caribbean Area


General Note:
Poem text, annotations, and commentary.
Poem is from Gardening in the Tropics by Olive Senior, published in Toronto by Insomniac Press in 2005.

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of Florida
Rights Management:
This item was contributed to the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC) by the source institution listed in the metadata. This item may or may not be protected by copyright in the country where it was produced. Users of this work have responsibility for determining copyright status prior to reusing, publishing or reproducing this item for purposes other than what is allowed by applicable law, including any applicable international copyright treaty or fair use or fair dealing statutes, which dLOC partners have explicitly supported and endorsed. Any reuse of this item in excess of applicable copyright exceptions may require permission. dLOC would encourage users to contact the source institution directly or to request more information about copyright status or to provide additional information about the item.


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Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Bamboo: (In Five Variations): 56 / Bamboo (In Five Variations) , text of the poem, annotations, and commentary are on (or to be added) the following pages and online: 56 A udio: forthcoming


Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Bamboo: (In Five Variations): 56 / BAMBOO (In Five Variations) 1 1. Bamboo love burns 2. bright and hot 3. and comes (and goes) 4. in flashes 5. leaving behind 6. as residue 7. fugitive 8. bamboo ashes. 2 9. Bamboo prides itself on knowing 10. the art of living long: 11. before wind, rain, axe and forager 12. humbly bending 13. while secretly sending deep into 14. cliff or mire 15. roots that are grasping and strong, 16. to spread. Not always 17. as quickly as that dread enemy 18. of conceit: fire. 3 19. If Stone had been a better debater, 20. Man (like Stone) would be living 21. forever. But long ago when such 22. matters were settled, Stone lost 23. the argument for eternity to Bamboo. 24. The clincher came with Bamboo saying: 25. its true, this way Man will die, 26. like me. But look along this endless 27. riverbank, what do you see? So Man 28. could be. With careful tending,


Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Bamboo: (In Five Variations): 56 / 29. despite my periodic ending, from 30. my roots young shoots spring, routinely. 4 31. Cows grazing on fresh bamboo shoot 32. gaze at eleven year old me lying at 33. bamboo root, in my sanctuary: dried ba mboo 34. leaves my bed, my head buried in a book. 35. The Little Prodigy, my GreatAunt 36. Emily (sarcastically) calls me when 37. I refuse to help her dust or cook, 38. polish silver or learn to use a hook 39. to fish up thread or wool in her tortures 40. called crochet and k nitting. To keep her 41. from having further fit in my idle 42. presence, at my earliest convenience 43. I take off over the picket fence, across 44. the pasture to lie in that dense bamboo 45. thicket. All who pass by call out to 46. remind me that Duppies inhabit bamboo root 47. and if I dont take care those spirits 48. will cause my head to twist around, my 49. tongue to tie, my eyes to shoot up 50. straight out of my head as bamboos do 51. from the ground. Still, as often as 52. possible I perversely choose to lie and 53. court fright on dry leave s that rustle, 54. under bamboo joints that creak, troubled 55. only by the thought that GreatAunt Emily 56. would experience such delight if a Duppy 57. (or the cat) actually got my tongue. 58. A nice kind of heathen were raising 59. she says talking over my head to some 60. invisible presence Up There (for such 61. weighty matters to me cannot be


Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Bamboo: (In Five Variations): 56 / 62. directly communicated). And only because 63. I said Church Makes Me Sneeze (which is 64. true). In view of her great age and to 65. avoid further outrage I bite my tongue 66. and wisely don't say that if she would only 67. leave me alone, one day in bamboo cathedral 68. I might encounter even the Holy Spirit, 69. for there I can breathe in (without 70. sneezing) a naturally fresh and liberating air. 5 71. You say youve been to my house 72. in the hills and never hea rd 73. from my high window 74. something like a dry rustle 75. from the riverbank, a long blue 76. sighing? Yes, maybe (as you say) 77. it wasnt the wind dying 78. in bamboo leaves and yes maybe 79. that isnt the sound of wild 80. bamboo flutes scaling up and down 81. mountain passe s which I keep 82. hearing from this high window 83. near St. Clair Avenue Toronto 84. Canada which is not where 85. riverbank or hill is. Annotations to the Poem (prepared by Olive Senior) 1 2] Bamboo (bambusa spp.) is a fast growing giant grass that has both ornamental and practical uses. Bamboo love is as described burning quickly and hot.


Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Bamboo: (In Five Variations): 56 / 8] Bamboo ashes refers to what is left after bamboo is burnt and symbolizes something that is light and easily blown away something negligible. Bamboo is easily burnt bu t will regenerate quickly from the roots. 19 30] The third stanza refers to a legendary debate between Stone and Bamboo during which both decided that death, rather than immortality, would be the fate of mankind. 46] Duppies: ghosts or spirits of the d ead. Commentary Written by H.M. Simpson (with assistance from the following ENG620 students: Melissa Coutts, Elyse Mayo, and Keisha Wright). Bamboo ( In Five Variations ) is one of several poems in Nature Studies, the second movement in Gardening in the Tropics. In Nature Studies, each poem is named for a specific plant associated with the Caribbean/New World landscape and uses the plant for which it is named as a point of entry into discussing larger themes or issues associated with the peoples and cultures of that space. In an interview with Hyacinth Simpson, Senior comments on one of the main literary devices she employs in the Nature Studies poems: In the section Nature Studies I had a lot of fun with these plants. In my poetry I do a lot of what is called personification where I treat an inanimate object as if it were human. I not only talk to these plants but they talk back to us. Also [] in writing these poems about p lants Im using a lot of the mythology and folklore of the Caribbean. Theres a lot more than simply descriptions of the plants; its going inside the plants to reveal more than just what we associate with them, that is, as plants that produce fruit, or trees, or whatever these plants are very much an integral part of who we are as a people. They are part of our stories and mythologies. ( On Gardens and Gardening ) Not surprisingly, then, as one reads through the five parts or variations of the poem it beco mes clear that the natural properties of the bamboo plant its resilience, its ability to adapt to almost any condition, and its tendency to regenerate quickly and last for a long time become the means by which the poem/t addresses the absence or presence o f similar traits in Caribbean/New World peoples. Read More... In keeping with Seniors comment above that she mines culturally specific folklore and mythologies for information that links specific human traits with particular plants (see, for example, the poem Starapple where the plant is likened to someone who is mean or close fisted), the poem begins with a Jamaican folk saying. Bamboo love, as the saying goes, is the kind of relatio nship that is very intense (burns/ bright and hot, line 2) but does not last long. The prevailing sense here is of impermanence, fragility, and vulnerability maybe even untrustworthiness and betrayal. But on closer look, that impression is mediated by th e fact that after the bamboo is consumed, it leaves behind/ as residue/ fugitive/ bamboo ashes (lines 5 8). Although elusive and fleeting like a fugitive, the ashes, which are light and easily blown away, contain a trace of the plant consumed by fire s o it has not fully disappeared. In fact, when one remembers that bamboo ashes are often used as fertilizer it is possible to argue that in the remnants of the bamboos destruction itself lies the possibility of its rebirth.


Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Bamboo: (In Five Variations): 56 / This idea of rebirth and thus o f resilience is picked up and expanded on in the second variation. A fastgrowing giant grass, the bamboo is known to send its roots deep into/ cliff and mire (line 14) so that the plant can withstand a variety of harsh conditions: wind, rain, axe and f orager (line 11). The bamboo, it seems, is difficult to destroy, even in the wake of that dread enemy/ of conceit: fire (lines 7 18). Its growth may be slowed, but it knows the art of living long (line 10). One of its defining features, then, is its a bility to rebound after disaster or setbacks, and to survive. This is a feature that Senior claims throughout Gardening in the Tropics for Caribbean/New World peoples and cultures. Like folklore, mythology is referenced because of the parallels it draws be tween the plant and the human worlds. The third variation recounts an indigenous aetiological tale in which humankinds mortality is explained as the consequence of Bamboo winning a debate with Stone. But while Bamboo cannot claim to be as indestructible a s Stone, it has the advantage of being able to regenerate. It affirms that, with careful tending (line 28), new shoots will continually spring from old roots. It is Bamboos ability to produce new shoots from old roots i.e. choose change over the kind o f stasis that can result in atrophy that provides an interpretive framework for the brief narrative presented in the fourth variation. In this part of the poem, a precocious eleven year old girl seeks solitude and sanctuary in a dense thicket of old bamboo roots and fresh bamboo shoots away from her Great Aunt Emily whose claustrophobic and restrictive dictates regarding proper female behaviour the girl defies at every opportunity. Instead of spending her time dusting, cooking, polishing silver, or knitting the girl prefers to read books that allow her to give flight to her imagination and envision other realities than the one she is being forced to live. Undeterred by old wives tales that would have her fear the malevolent spirits that supposedly inhabit t he roots of the bamboo plant, the girl escapes to her bamboo hideaway every chance she gets, daring to believe that there rather than in the Church at the centre of GreatAunt Emilys life she will find that which truly sustains and affirm her spirit/self. While the tone in the fourth variation is playful (the little girls feistiness and her conflict with her guardian are humorously depicted), its critique of the role religion and the Chur ch as a Western institution have played in socializing Caribbean females into Eurocentric, class based gender identities that can severely undermine their sense of themselves as culturally autonomous and valid beings runs deep. Senior has addressed this issue in other poems (such as Colonial Girls School in her collection Talking of Trees ) as well as in her prose fiction (including the short stories Bright Thursdays and Do Angels Wear Brassieres? from Summer Lightning and Other Stories ). Significantl y, then, it is the Indigenous New World myth which presents Bamboo as the prototype for humankinds ability to renew itself in positive ways through natural cycles of death and regeneration rather than the Christian conception of death as the consequence o f Original Sin that the poem offers as a more liberating way of knowing and being for the little girl, and future generations of Caribbean women. But, as Bamboo warns in the third variation, the cycles of death and regeneration of young shoots springing up from old roots will continue routinely and unabated only if those roots are carefully tended. This suggests that Caribbean/New World peoples have to do the cultural and psychic work necessary to release themselves from the centuries of self abnegation rep resented in GreatAunt Emilys clinging to beliefs and practices used to invalidate her and her culture so that they too, like the little girl, can breathe in (without/ sneezing) a naturally fresh and liberating air (lines 69 70). In the fifth variation the poem addresses another issue that, as evident in several other poems in Gardening in the Tropics has greatly impacted the lives of Caribbean/New World peoples: migration. The persona in this section of the poem (ostensibly an adult) has moved from a Caribbean location to Saint Clair Avenue Toronto/ Canada (lines 83 84). Here, the poetic persona bears witness to her own experience of migration and diaspora in that she speaks directly in her own voice to an implied listener about her physical and emo tional response to


Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Bamboo: (In Five Variations): 56 / resettlement. At first it might appear that the persona is hearing things that her perception of her new environment cannot be trusted. Although she now lives in a place where there is no riverbank or hill (line 85), she insists tha t she hears something like a dry rustle/from the riverbank (lines 74 75) and the sound of wild/bamboo flutes scaling up and down/ mountain passes (lines 79 81). Her auditor appears to be puzzled that she is hearing similar sounds of nature from the h igh window in her former house/in the hills (lines 71 73) presumably somewhere in a mountainous region of the Caribbean like the Cockpit Mountains of Seniors birthplace, and from the high window looking out from an apartment in an high rise building in Toronto in two very dissimilar landscapes. But rather than functioning as an indicator of the personas mental or physical disorientation/dislocation in her new environment; or, as Jenny Burman argues, as evidence that the poem is antidiasporic and d oes not locate a thriving Jamaica in Toronto (Burman 68), the personas mishearing suggests exactly the opposite. Like the bamboo whose rustling leaves and flute notes she keeps hearing, the persona is able to spread her roots so that she simultaneously ( and comfortably) belongs to two worlds. Again, the reader is invited to call upon what she learned about the natural properties of bamboo in the earlier variations and apply them to a reading of the brief narrative that unfolds in this final variation. It is no coincidence that this persona, like the little girl, seems to have an affinity with the bamboo plant as it becomes, like various features of the natural world in Seniors creative garden space, a potent symbol of a cultures ability to heal and susta in itself. Work Cited Burman, Jenny. Remittances; or Diasporic Economies of Yearning. Small Axe 12 (2002): 49 71. Print. On Gardens and Gardening. Prod. Hyacinth M. Simpson. Perf. Olive Senior. Toronto: Ryerson University, 2007. DVD.