Amazon woman

Material Information

Amazon woman
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 source : color illustrations


Subjects / Keywords:
Poetry, Modern ( fast )
Manners and customs ( fast )
1900-1999 ( fast )
Caribbean Area ( 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
Holding Location:
University of Florida
Rights Management:
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Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Amazon Women : http://www.dloc.c om/ AA00061916 Amazon Women, text of the poem, annotations, and commentary are on (or to be added) the following pages and online: A udio: forthcoming


Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Amazon Women : http://www.dloc.c om/ AA00061916 AMAZON WOMEN 1. Gardening in the Tropics, sometimes 2. you come across these strong Amazon 3. women striding across our lands 4. like Toeyza who founded the Wori 5. shiana nation of female warriors 6. in the mountains of Parima of whom 7. the missionary Brett and Sir Walter 8. Raleigh wrote. Though nobody believed 9. them, I myself could tell a tale or two 10. (though nothing as exotic as the story 11. of Toeyza and her lover Walyarima who 12. swam the river disguised as a black 13. jaguar whenever he visited her). Now 14. we've got that out of the way let me 15. hasten to say I'm not into sensationalism, 16. I merely wished to set the record 17. straight by averring that the story 18. of Amazon women might have begun 19. because when the warriors we nt away 20. to war or voyages it was the 21. women who kept the gardens going 22. and sometimes if the men were not 23. heard from again (as occasionally 24. happened) they banded together and 25. took up arms to defend the territory. 26. So somebody like Cristobal Coln 27. or Sir Walter Raleigh could have 28. come along and heard these (marvellous) 29. tales of (fabulous) lands full of 30. (pure) gold and fierce (untamed, 31. exotic) women (you know how men stay!). 32. And the rest (as they say) is history. 33. Mark you, the part about Toeyza's 34. husband sending her and the other 35. women to gather cassava for a feast 36. while he ambushed and killed her lover 37. is true (at least, my auntie says so 38. and her husband's uncle's grandfather 39. told him as a fact and he got it 40. from someone who knew). I don't know 41. about y ou but the part I find 42. disgusting is that while they were 43. away, the husband (the chief at that) 44. skinned and hung the lover up 45. in the women's hut as a lesson 46. to faithless wives. (Though if men 47. go around in jaguar disguise, what 48. can they expect?) If you ask me, 49. that husband got what was coming


Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Amazon Women : http://www.dloc.c om/ AA00061916 50. (poisoned by bitter cassava juice 51. mixed in with the beer) though 52. I can't see what the rest of the men 53. did to deserve equal treatment. 54. But that Toeyza (with liberated words) 55. led all the wives in flight and they 56. managed ( despite pursuit) to fight 57. their way across the jungle to the 58. heights and freedom in their own 59. nation which ever since has been 60. justly celebrated as the Land of 61. the Amazon. The best part (I hear) 62. is that they allow men to visit them 63. once a year. Boy children they send 64. back to the land of their fathers, 65. girls they keep to rear (though 66. I'm not sure I would want my girl 67. raised by a band of women outlaws 68. keeping company with jaguars). But 69. you see my trial! I'm here gossiping 70. about things I ne ver meant to air 71. for nobody could say I'm into 72. scandal. I wanted to tell of noble women 73. like Nanny the Maroon queen mother 74. or the fair Anacaona, Taino 75. chieftainess who was brutally 76. slain by the colonists, or of 77. the Carib women whom the said Coln 78. relied on for navigation 79. through the islands. I hadn't meant 80. to tell tall tale or repeat exotic 81. story for that's not my style. 82. But we all have to make a living 83. and there's no gain in telling stories 84. about ordinary men and women. 85. Then again, when gardening 86. in the Tropics, every time you lift 87. your eyes from the ground 88. you see sights that strain your 89. credulity like those strong 90. Amazon Women striding daily across 91. our lands carrying bundles of wood 92. on their heads and babies strapped 93. to their breasts and calabashes of 94. water in both hands. Annotations to the Poem (prepared by Olive Senior)


Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Amazon Women : http://www.dloc.c om/ AA00061916 78] missionary Brett and Sir Walter Raleigh: two Englishmen who helped to propagate the legend of the Amazon women. The Rev. William Henry Brett was an Anglican missionary who travelled the interior of Guyana in the nineteenth century and published two books on the legends of the Guyanese people. He also translated part of the Bible into the Arawak language. Sir Walter Raleigh is a seventeenth century explorer who led two expedition s to the Orinoco in search of gold. He also spread the story of Amazon women in the Americas. 26] Cristobal Coln: Spanish name of Christopher Columbus whose diaries and letters about the New World are full of fantastical and legendary stories. 73] Nanny the Maroon queen mother: a Maroon leader in Jamaica in the eighteenth century who is now one of the countrys official National Heroes. 74] the fair Anacaona: a Tano leader who was brutally murdered by the Spaniards. Commentary Written by Denise deCaires Narain, University of Sussex Amazon Women is one of twelve poems in the Gardening in the Tropics section of the collection of that name. In this poem, as in several others in this section, the speaker uses the phrase gardening in the tropics as a disarming opening gambit that invites the reader to share the speakers reflections on a topic that she appears to stumble upon. The speakers in the poems in this section are presented as ordinary people whose gardening activities are part of the bu siness of making life in the Caribbean where small scale market gardening was historically a crucial aspect of survival for enslaved peoples. In Amazon Women, the speaker suggests that in the innocent act of gardening, she has come across the mythical Amazonian women; and, in the process, Senior deftly implies continuities between postslavery garden plots and pre Columbian small scale agricultural practices. The poem opens: Gardening in the tropics, sometimes you come across these strong Amazon wome n striding across our lands (lines 1 3) Gardening in the tropics operates here as a playful pretext for the reconsideration of these monumental female figures of History and myth. The poem offers a retelling of the story of Toeyza, a Worishiana woman whose dalliance with her lover, Walyarima, incited her husband to kill him as a lesson to all wives. Rather than obey this lesson, Toeyza leads the other women through the jungle where they, in Seniors words, establish their own/ nation which ever since has been / justly celebrated as the Land of/ the Amazon (lines 58 61). Seniors poem engages with the familiar story of an exclusively female community of Amazonian women in interesting ways, drawing attention to and recalibrating the sensationalist elem ents of these stories while also retaining and re circulating aspects of that very sensationalism. It is clear from the outset in the direct reference to Brett (an English missionary who worked for many decades in Guiana) and Sir Walter Raleigh that specif ic historical resources are being drawn upon; and, indeed, Seniors annotations to the poem provided above confirm these details. The speaker, while hastening to remind her audience that she is not into sensationalism (line 15), retells the bare bones of the story so that it is sensational. But this


Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Amazon Women : http://www.dloc.c om/ AA00061916 sensationalism is qualified by the wry commentary the speaker offers on these extraordinary events. She is disgusted that the husband skinned and hung his wifes lover up for the other wives to see, but it is the addition of the bracketed aside that the husband is (a chief at that) (line 43) that deftly aligns the extraordinary with the ordinary, the fabulous with the everyday. Similarly, the exotic potential of Walyarima crossing the river disguised as a jag uar to visit Toeyza is deflated by the comment: (Though if men/ go around in jaguar disguise, what/ can they expect?) (lines 46 48). Seniors strategy here might be read as enacting Edward Saids idea of the contrapuntal in its alertness to the ways t hat smaller histories (and quieter voices) interrupt and snag dominant narratives of History. The opening stanzas of William Henry Bretts poetically rendered account of the genesis of the South American Amazons demonstrate the heroic, exoticizing tone tha t Seniors text draws on, reworks, and resists: Of the fierce Worisiana (Such their nations name) I can tell the ancient story: How their warlike strength and glory First began in shame. For a chieftains wife, To eyza, Faithless dared to be, Caring nothing for disaster; Haughty was her lord and master, Haughtier was she. (Origin of the Amazons80) Bretts speaker narrates, with a knowing assurance, a perspective that the regular stanzaic structure and rhyme scheme consolidates. Seniors poem is w ritten in free verse that is punctuated by bracketed asides, exclamations, and interruptions; and its poetic qualities are much more covertly embedded (in internal rhymes and choice of words, for example). The declamatory mode of address that characterizes Bretts account signals a rhetorical oral quality that does not anticipate interruption. While Seniors poem is similarly oral and declamatory, it anticipates, welcomes, and pre empts interruptions, frequently hailing the listener/reader directly. The spe aker makes use of vernacular Jamaican idiom in several places for example in (you know how men stay!)in line 31 and in But/ you see my trial! in lines 68 69 to establish an intimate mode of address and to appeal directly to the reader/listener as someo ne who shares a similar worldview and values. In doing so, the speaker seeks to establish her position as an ordinary but respectable member of the community whose opinions should be trusted. Seniors speaker cunningly deploys wit and humour to establish t he sense that the views she expresses are widely held, familiar, and uncontentious. The frequent use of asides consolidates the sense of a shared cultural terrain and invites consensus, as in (you know how men stay!) and I dont know/ about you but ( lines 4041). Senior uses respectability1 strategically in Amazon Women, as she does in many of her poems, particularly in ways that allow her to inscribe resistance to dominant cultures in a quieter register than is more usually associated with Caribbe an poetry (in the work of Louise Bennett, Kamau Brathwaite, or Linton Kwesi Johnson, for example). The understatement and self deprecation that characterize many of Seniors speakers allow them to figure resistance in cunningly sinuous ways; like Anansi th e trickster, they insinuate rather than proclaim their


Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Amazon Women : http://www.dloc.c om/ AA00061916 subversive tactics and, as a result, often seem to have their cake and eat it too. So although the speaker in Amazon Women asserts early on that her purpose is to set the record/ straight (lines 16 17) by explaining the origins of Amazonian womenonly groups in more practical terms (as maintaining the gardens while the men were away), she spends more time on the sensational myths than on the practicalities, and her account includes an unapologetic celebration of Amazon women. The poem concludes by suggesting that there are historical continuities between powerful mythical women figures (Toeyza; Anacaona (a Taino womanleader brutally slain by the Spanish); Carib women who helped Columbus to navigat e; and Nanny of the Maroons) and the strength displayed by ordinary Caribbean women everywhere who toil every day to sustain their families. The celebration of this varied feminist genealogy is an important one for it emphasizes powerful connections between Amerindian women and the AfricanJamaican leader Nanny in relation to contemporary Caribbean womens lived realities. In so doing, it also quietly affirms an indigenous lineage of feminism that is embedded in Amerindian myths as a source of power that in forms African Caribbean feminist solidarity, a trajectory that bypasses the usual narrative that feminism originated in the West.2 The obviously feminist agenda of the poem is mediated by the speakers tone which is coyly dissembling, simultaneously decla ring and disavowing its challenge to the reader. After commenting admiringly on the gender segregation of Toeyzas community of women where boy babies are sent back to the land of their fathers (line 64), the speaker qualifies her position with another b racketed aside: (though/ Im not sure I would want my girl/ raised by a band of women outlaws/ keeping company with jaguars) (lines 65 68). It is this playful shuttling between avowal and disavowal, between the ordinary and the extraordinary, and between varied registers (the literary and the colloquial tenor of gossip) that allows the poem to domesticate the mythical/historical material it draws upon. In doing so, Seniors poem does not simply repeat the frequently reiterated truism that the pre Columbia n peoples of the Americas were exterminated but works actively to allow these cultures to resonate in, and inform, contemporary Caribbean understandings of itself. The final section of the poem consolidates the sense of fluid navigation across time, lan dscape, and register that I am arguing distinguishes the poem under discussion and many of the poems in the Gardening in the Tropics section. In a similar manner as with Seniors knowing use of a word loaded with exotic freight as is tropics, Amazon W omen a culturally loaded choice. This is made clear in the wry way that Senior lists the expectations of men like Columbus or Raleigh, who find just what they expected, having heard (marvellous)/ tales of (fabulous) lands full of/ (pure) gold and fierce (untamed,/ exotic) women (lines 28 31). In Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest Anne McClintock makes reference to a long tradition of male travel as an erotics of ravishment and to places like the New World/Americas as porno tropics for the European imagination (22). Seniors poem clearly references this exoticizing and eroticizing projection. Alert to the possibility that she, too, may risk being complicit with a porno tropical imaginary, the speaker interrupts her own narration: But you see my trial! Im here gossiping about things I never meant to air for nobody could say Im into scandal. [] I hadnt meant to tell tall tale or repeat exotic


Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Amazon Women : http://www.dloc.c om/ AA00061916 story for thats not my style. But we all have to make a living And theres no gain in telling stories About ordinary men and women. (lines 68 84) Here the speaker acknowledges the powerful lure of the scandalous and exotic for everyone, everywhere as well as the practical realities of making a living for the poet and story teller. Having made the above declaration, the poem shifts again Then again, when gardening/ in the Tropics, every time you lift/ your eyes from the ground/ you see sights that strain your/ credulity (lines 85 89) and closes with an image of Amazon women striding daily across/ our lands (lines 90 91) performing the everyday labour of many women everywhere: carrying babies, wood, and water. Once again, Senior deftly welds together the or dinary and the extraordinary as mirror images of each other. And, then again, in reminding the listener/reader of the speakers location in the garden, the poem closes with an image of the speaker poet tilling (and reading) the soil as if it were an ar chive that, with patient labour, will release its buried treasure of stories stories that will allow those of Raleigh, Columbus, Brett and others housed in that more canonical archive to resonate in more mischievously promiscuous ways. Seniors self deprec ating, respectable womanspeaker, then, is deployed as a figure whose very understated ordinary ness allows her resistance to pass while she runs amok rifling through the formal archive and creating a new one. Notes 1 Seniors texts frequently engage wi th and challenge ideas of respectability as a set of values and conventions that articulate proper female identity. Peter Wilsons Crab Antics: The Social Anthropology of English Speaking Negro Societies of the Caribbean controversially and problematic ally opposed the conventional association of women with respect (via the church, home, use of standard English, and bourgeois values of decorum and honesty) to that of reputation (associated with the male culture of the street, Creole culture, and flam boyant display). Seniors work challenges this neatly gendered binary opposition to suggest that respectability can be deployed strategically to great effect. See my discussion of this in Olive Senior (3 4) and Michael Bucknors Sounding off: performing r itual revolt in Olive Seniors Meditiation on Yellow. 2 See Amazonia, a bronze and mahogany sculpture by Jasmine Thomas Girvan that was directly inspired by this feminist sentiment in Seniors poem at content/uploads/2 011/12/jasminecatalogue 20111.pdf. Works Cited Brett, William Henry. Origin of the Amazons (An Ancient Legend of the Inland Mountain Tribes). Legends and Myths of the Aboriginal Indians of British Guiana. London: William Wells Gardner,1880. 180 87. Print. Bucknor, Michael. Sounding off: performing ritual revolt in Olive Seniors Meditation on Yellow. Mosaic 42.2 (2009): 55 71. Print. deCaires Narain, Denise. Olive Senior. Tavistock, UK: Northcote House, 2011. McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. Routledge, 1995. Print. Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Print.


Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Amazon Women : http://www.dloc.c om/ AA00061916 Wilson, Peter. Crab Antics: The Social Anthropology of English Speaking Negro Societies of the Caribbean. Yale University Press, 1973. Print.