Analysis of Grace Nicholls’ poem “Childhood”
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Grace Nicholls was born in Georgetown, Guyana in 1950 and educated at St. Stephen’s Scots School, PPI High School, and the University of Guyana. She worked as a teacher, freelance journalist and Guyanese Government employee before moving to Britain in 1977. She is regarded as the most authoritative voice among contemporary black women poets in Britain. “The Fat Black Woman’s Poems'” which she wrote in 1984 uses humour to deconstruct a racial and sexual stereotypes, this poetry collection is where the poem which I am going to analyse “Childhood” came from.
Childhood is about the poet reminiscing about her childhood in her home country, she is telling us about the community she lived in and the fishing industry that she was involved in. How they killed the fish and how her religious background has affected her life in her new country. She is telling us one of her childhood stories.
The theme of this poem is of a culture clash between the ‘easy’ life of the British and the ‘hard-working’ life of the Caribbean , the poet is trying to set a theme of how people in Britain do not have to catch there own food and the way they catch fish is a lot harder. She may not like this country because it is so different to hers, like ‘at Sunday school’ in this country most people work on a Sunday and it is supposed to be a day of rest and it may have come as a shock to her when she came to this country. Another poem which deals with culture clashes is “Fear”, which is about racial tension between Caribbean and British cultures which is the theme here but it is not as strong in the childhood poem.
She may have been forced to eat the fish so this may be a sad memory from her childhood and she is comparing it to life in the new country that she live in and this has brought back memories of the fish when people don’t pray for there food in this country, this is again part of the culture clash that she writes about. “watershed of sunlight” shows that Nichols is missing the Caribbean she repeats this theme in many of her poems including “Island Man” and “Two Old Men on a…….”
Grace Nichols seems quite angry in this poem about the fish dying or maybe the people in this country. “the fishes before a drought” she may be angry at God for giving them droughts and letting the fish die and the drought implies that her life is not perfect so she maybe angry with some British people who are not grateful for the easy life they have compared to other countries like her homeland.
“floundering at our back doors” the fish may have been on dry land because there was no water and the poet may have seen these fish and knowing there was nothing she could do because there was no water and when she realised that she was helpless in this situation she may have become angry at herself. “came in droves” may have meant that the fish used to be in abundance but after the droughts they had nothing left so this backs up the evidence that she was sad and that this is a sad childhood memory which has been brought back by something which has happened in this country that has angered her.
“Sunfish/patwa/butterfish” are reminders of happy things from her homeland which means that not the entire poem is sad and some of her memories of catching fish are good ones, although this may also mean “butterfish” and “sunfish may be some of the fish that died in the droughts so in that case it could be a sad memory.
“beneath the mirror surfacing” this may be signs of things to come for the community, the fish underneath the water are being starved of oxygen because of the salt in the water and the people on land will be starved when the fish die and there will be no food left, this might have been the reason why she left her homeland to come to here and it may have been a sad time having to leave her family not knowing when she would see them again.
The poem starts with the line “My childhood” which is an indication that it is a memory from her childhood; other memories in other poems that Nichols has reminisced about have been distorted so we may think that this one is too. Being a child she is probably blind to reality and does not really know what is happening when the fishes are dying, in her childhood she may have had happy care-free days and now that she is an adult she sees life differently. The statement is enjambment which means that the line flows into the next without pause.
“was a watershed of sunlight” shows that maybe her childhood and her life now have a boundary between them. Her childhood was a very happy time and the “sunlight shows that. Maybe she could not see over that boundary and see what was happening to the fish, she was protected by the “watershed of sunlight”. The “sunlight” is to make her childhood appear better and the “watershed” also means “summit which may mean that her childhood was the happiest times of her life.
“and strange recurring mysteries” this line contrasts the ‘happy’ theme from the last line with darkness of this line. Her homeland seems to be a place of contrast just like this poem, the atmosphere is a lot darker in this line compared to others, it could refer to the idea that childhood is not reality and that it is a mystery which could remain unsolved and it could be frustrating. “strange” suggests that these mysteries are not of the adventurous type, they are odd and uncomfortable for her to talk about. There is enjambment used here.
“the fishes before a drought” this is the first time that the “fish” theme is introduced, there is a non-standard form of plural indicates that the poet is not comfortable with the English language or it maybe a link into the idea of childhood and a child would probably use that kind of language. “drought” implies that life was not perfect which is a theme that runs through the poem.
“saltwater drove them in” the word “droves is used in a different context here than it was in a earlier line. In this line it means that the saltwater is driving the fish to the shore or the water is reseeding and they have nowhere to go. This is the continuous theme of the poem, sad.
“sunfish/patwa/butterfish” there is a contrast of names of things in her home country and in Britain; “sunfish” sounds more tropical than cod or trout. The idea of tropical reflects the images of sunlight from before, imagery is used to reflect the picture of a tropical paradise by using the word “sunfish”. “Patwa” is a language which is probably used where she comes from, that may explain why her English is not perfect or she may be doing that on purpose to create emphasis. The forward slashes quicken the rhythms and pace, it also creates a listing effect, to use conjunction would slow the line down.
“half stunned I watched” the word order in this line is changed to give emphasis. The poet is stunned because she has been watching the fish for years probably, thinking how beautiful they were and now they are dying right in front of her, the fish are stunned because they have been starved of oxygen. There is ambiguity in this line because is it the fish who are stunned or the fish or the narrator, this theme of mystery has come back again.
“bare hand I gripped” unusual word order is repeated again, she may be angry that the fish are dying and she is gripping the fish so hard trying to help them but actually she is killing them, or she is trying to catch them and she is frustrated that she can’t. “bare hand” show that she used no tools and that her country is probably quite poor so they can’t afford the tools needed that could also why she is frustrated.
“at Sunday school” obviously the author was brought up in a religious community and also this line kind of contradicts the last line about them having no money because her family must be quite well off to be able to afford for her to go to Sunday school. Religion must have been a main part of her community and that may be why she is frustrated because God is not answering her prayers to save her community from the droughts, there is also a use of enjambment in this line leading on to the next to create emphasis.
“we didn’t learn to pray” the enjambment is used to create emphasis in the last stanza. Using we may have meant her family or her friends at Sunday school, she is missing them and this memory has made her think about her friends. They prayed but not about fish, so probably most of the other people in the community didn’t care about the fish, just as long as they can eat them, this is the only food that they have to eat so they have to be grateful that it is so easy to catch them, they may be scared that if they pray for the fresh water fish God may stop them dying and the community may have to catch them the hard way.
“for the fresh water dying souls of fish” this line emphasise that she is religious because she believes in the soul. It is a sad line to finish on; she feels sympathy for the fish although they are the only things that she has to eat. She may have wanted to pray for the fish but she didn’t know how to because no one had told her at Sunday school, so she was helpless just like when she was trying to save the fish from dying she was helpless, there is a contrast between the saltwater and freshwater, the theme of contrasts had been repeated earlier on in the poem.
I think that this poem starts off quite happy but continues to get sadder as the poem continues up until the point where the fish have died. It was probably quite a traumatic time for her watching the fish die right in front of her, this may have been the time where she began to grow up and realise that eating the fish was their only option for survival and she should be grateful for what she has. I chose to analyse this poem because it is quite interesting and there are many contrasts in it to write about like happy and sad and freshwater and saltwater. The poem also tells us a lot about how hard life was in her homeland and how easy it is in this country because we do not have to catch our own food all we have to do is cook it and eat it. This is my favourite poem because it is quite simplistic and easy language to read, it is also quite an insight in to her life which gave me plenty to write about in my analysis.