Grace Nichols is a poet whose work has been central to our understanding of the important cultural Caribbean-British connection for nearly 3 decades. From her first collection, I Is a Long Memoried Woman (1983), to her more recent work such as Picasso, I Want My Face Back (2009), she has uncovered with a disquieting lyricism and humour the various facets of life as a woman and as an immigrant living in the UK.
Nichols was born in Guyana in 1950, and moved to live in the UK in 1977. Her work is influenced by the history and culture of her homeland, in particular the oral story-telling tradition with its fantastic folk tales, the landscape and its rural tasks and the history of enslavement (particularly relating to women). ‘To My Coral Bones’ from Startling the Flying Fish (2006) explores the importance of Nichols’ Caribbean heritage, suggesting she has ‘alwayscarried deepthese islands’.
On arrival in the UK, Nichols’ work began to respond to the contemporary situation. She was one of a number of West-Indian poets, including Linton Kwesi-Johnson and John Agard, whose work also touched on racial tensions at a time when immigration was at the centre of the political debates under Margaret Thatcher’s government. Poems from her 1984 collection The Fat Black Woman’s Poems are an arresting and humourous riposte, presenting the unfettered thoughts of the heroine in the bath or at the shops. A later poem, ‘Hurricane Hits England’, expresses the connection between cultures, when a hurricane reminds her that ‘the earth is the earth is the earth’.
Her poetry is characterized not just by the themes above, but by an acute attention to the language which carries the poems. Her work marries the Creole of her homeland with standard English, creating new possibilities for rhythm and rhyme. As such, while reading her poetry on the page offers fascinating insights to the potential for linguistic hybridity, it is when spoken aloud that her techniques sing most powerfully.
In her reading for the Archive, Nichols’ voice brings the poems to life, giving free reign to the infectious lyrical sweep of her verse. For example, in ‘Praise Song for My Mother’ (which is on the current GCSE syllabus), there is a true harmony in the blend of the vibrant imagery, ‘the fish’s red gill’ and ‘the flame tree’s spread’, the haunting recollection of the past tense ‘You were’, and the forward movement of the repeated stanza structure and end-rhymes.
Her poetry for children is characterized by the same rhythms as her other poetry, although the subjects are designed to appeal to a younger audience. ‘Cat-Rap’, included here, proves that Nichols herself is ‘The meanest cat-rapper you’ll ever seeNumber one of the street-sound galaxy’.
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