Shara McCallum’s Madwoman: an Exploration of Female Identity, Race, and Strength

Posted by Arianna Miller, GD Co-Poetry Section Head for 6.2

Shara McCallum was this semester’s visiting poet at SUNY Geneseo.  I had not only the pleasure of sitting down for lunch with McCallum, both also of reading her diverse collection, MadwomanMadwoman spans across what it means to be a woman, to have the privilege of being a black woman who appears white, and to accept being the daughter of a schizophrenic, all with the underlying presence of her Jamaican heritage.   

McCallum’s second poem, “Memory,” declares the speaker’s unwavering resilience, “I bruise the way the most secreted,/ most tender part of a thigh exposed/ purples then blues. No spit-shine shoes,/ I’m dirt you can’t wash from your feet./ Wherever you go, know I’m the wind/ accosting the trees, the howling night/ of your sea.”  These lines are striking in content as well as form—McCallum’s use of line breaks and rhythm pull readers in, and display the speaker’s inherent strength.  

I attended McCallum’s reading, which took place on February 27th in the Doty Tower.  A piece that received ultimate praise was “Race,” where the speaker questions what it means to be a black woman who appears white.  McCallum read, “…She’s the whitest black girl you ever saw,/ […] But, man, look at that ass and look at her shake it/ […] Girl, who is it now you’d want to see you?/ And what would that mean: to be seen?”  McCallum’s use of italics emphasizes what onlookers have said about her appearance.  When the speaker asks herself, “…who is it now you’d want to see you?” she stresses the conflict of racial identity.  The poem concludes, “Why not make a blessing of what/ all these years you’ve though a curse?—/ you are so everywhere, so nowhere,/ in plain sight you walk through walls.”  This definitive ending encapsulates the speaker’s strength and determination—to not let her race, or apparent race, “curse” her life.

At our lovely lunch at Geneseo’s Big Tree Inn, I asked McCallum where her idea for the Madwoman, who narrates several of her poems, came from.  McCallum explained that Madwoman was a voice she heard in her head, that Madwoman existed in a couple of her poems before she decided to write an entire collection about her.  Madwoman eventually became a voice that McCallum could not ignore, which was actually troubling for her considering her father was a schizophrenic.  In her piece, “Ten Things You Might Like to Know About Madwoman,” McCallum lists facts about Madwoman, outlining personal information and utilizing a conversational tone.  The first stanza of the piece reads, “1. The source of her rage and joy are the same, which is true of many people where she’s from, who, at one point or another, have not had a pot to piss in.”  McCallum’s use of third person and prose-like language separate herself from the speaker of the piece, offering readers a perspective that is personal yet not overly intimate.

In conclusion, Shara McCallum’s Madwoman is a deep, coherent collection that asks the reader to question female identity, race, and strength.  This book is teeming with imagistic language, i.e. “A vine froths white stars” (“West Coast”), which will leave readers feeling full of delicately chosen words.  McCallum is a strong, sophisticated Madwoman and, in her book, invites everyone to see just that.

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