Louise McStravick’s “How to Make Curry Goat” explores a Jamaican heritage and growing up in Birmingham (UK). Poems are presented double spaced. “Tanned Feet” starts with “This tan from Jamaica never washed off” and continues
“These tanned feet have grown golden next to
the ghost of a mango tree
where children would meet,
bodies speak the language of freedom
run to catch shrimp in a river that
only runs now in black and white memories.
But my feet see them in colour
in the soft, brown warmth of a tan
nourished with coconut jelly
so it does not fade
that will be topped up again
The poems are grounded in Birmingham but infused with memories of Jamaica. The title poem has a parent teaching a child where seemingly straightforward instructions are commented on,
“Take around 7 quid’s worth of goat
Or mutton dem di same ting
A spring of thyme, two large onions, three if you’re that way inclined
Not di Spanish h’onion di British h’onion.
A bulb of garlic. All-purpose seasoning and Caribbean Curry Powder
It nah matter which curry powder you fi use.
Using eyes to measure, one-part All Purpose to two-part curry powder
Be careful with the All Purpose. You nah want too much salt.”
Precision is not the recipe’s point and exact measurements have been lost to decades of experience and improvisation. A person who cooks frequently adapts to the availability of ingredients and family tastes – not much point in loading the curry with peppers if family members aren’t fond of peppers. This intuition isn’t easy to teach and frustrates both child and parent, “You ask too many question!” becomes a refrain as the poem continues and the parent justifies saying goat or mutton can be used initially by saying they are the same and then they taste the same. Eventually, the curry is left to simmer and the child has to learn patience,
Tell your tongue to stop dribbling spit
that good things come to those that wait, imagine the plate, the tempting
fate that would be you trying to steal meat again.
It nah ready yet!
You are 6 again, 8 again, 10, again, 14, again,
waiting, waiting, salivating sitting on hands that do not know how to
The wait is worth it,
“He calls you to taste, it tastes better than great
it tastes like from the plate of his mom I never knew,
his gran, my namesake, it tastes like it has travelled on vibrations, on
waves, a land foreign to new territory.
Indentured slavery mixed with imported trade makes its way to my plate:
new learned memories.
Now these hands follow those that for centuries have taught their
daughters, their sons, me to make this curry.”
The poem ends,
“Until. Our story rises with steam from the plate.”
Learning how to make curry is more than learning a recipe. It’s learning about tradition, nurturing families and heritage. It’s not the curry that’s important, but the knowledge and experience passed down in learning how to make it, how family tastes have improvised and informed the ingredients and that good food worth sharing takes time.
“Fatherland, Motherland” asks if it’s cultural appropriation to speak patios with a Birmingham accent and concludes,
“I am British, English, a bit Irish and Jamaican
wha gwaan blud
curry goat and plaintain,
garage, yorkshire puddings and grime
this is all part of my culture,
but which culture is mine?”
“Postcards from England” a Jamaican sees terraced houses with lines of chimneys and thinks they are factories, until he discovers how cold it is and why houses need heat. In “My sister was born a sunset”, the mother is told “When children come out healthy, they are pink.” And “Children are not yellow like a fully-backed sun.” The mother knows better though when the midwives and nurses say “she must have jaundice”
“My mother tells them her father’s
skin holds the burnt ochres of a Caribbean sunset.
They do not say sorry when they hand her over.”
The failure to apologise is telling: the nursing staff aren’t prepared to admit their prejudice and failure to take racial differences into account and to do this to a new mother exhausted from labour and worried about her baby is wrong.
Not all the poems focus directly on heritage. Some look to dating and relationships ending. “Move on” is four powerful lines,
“Ghosts don’t exist
except in the lump in the throat
the place between the end
and a new beginning.”
“Coconut” does return to childhood memories and ends with a child having her hair combed,
“he did not know how hair breaks she said my brothers and sisters were in Africa
did what he was taught I thought she had an affair. I wanted to know
hard labour, roots and culture, were my brothers and sisters like off the T.V
I’ll give you something to cry for, in between Coronation Street.
Take of mi belt and beat you, they would ask me why,
If you can’t hear you must feel, I drew Katie and not me.”
The theme of hair is revisited in “Gaudí would not have approved” where the narrator feels pushed into straightening her hair,
“Each strand brushed becomes brittle, broken into shards, she sheds, exposed. ‘Isn’t that better’? Then she remembers Gaudí. Curves undulating, pieces of broken rainbow toast the naked Catalonian sun. Surrounded by buildings standing straight, in line, trying to bend themselves away from the earth, against their better judgement, doing what they are told over and over again. Until they do not remember they are held together with cement. The Casa Bastillo turns the horizon part kaleidoscope, bent balconies, unfurl against transparent sky to remind her that she is the crest of the ocean, just before it breaks, the deepening curve of a tree’s roots, nature’s anchor, a freshly-fallen leaf, the fullness of pregnancy, the moon eclipsing the sun and so she tells them of Gaudí. That there are no straight lines in nature.”
It’s not stated directly, but I very much doubt the narrator will give in and straighten her hair again. The prose poem is not double-spaced.
“How to Make Curry Goat” explores the poet’s Jamaican roots and growing up in the UK. The poems are conversational in tone and aim to share their messages without telling the reader how to think. They are easy to read aloud, the rhythms follow natural speech patterns, which demonstrates the subtlety of the craft that they are founded on. Louise McStravick has created a collection that is engaging and makes serious points with humour.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.