Grace Nichols was born in Guyana in 1950. She lived there until 1977 when she came to live with her partner, another poet. She writes many poems and anthologies. Her poems are mainly about black people and their sense of culture. She writes about the pride they have to be themselves and not to feel embarrassed about who they are. She has also written poetry about missing her home and about what it feels like to be away. I have chosen to study four poems by Grace Nichols: these are, ‘Beauty,’ ‘The Fat Black Woman Goes Shopping,’ ‘Like A Beacon’ and ‘Island Man. ‘
These four poems all explore different aspects of cultural diversity. Beauty’ is about Nichols’ own views of beauty and not listening to the stereotypical ideas that are impounded into everybody’s minds. Nichols doesn’t mean beauty in the sense of having a perfect figure and features but beauty in the form of being proud of herself and content with whom she is. This poem is primarily about a fat black woman. Another of these poems is about a fat black woman. The title of this is ‘The Fat Black Woman Goes Shopping. ‘ Though this poem shows that she is proud of who she is, it also shows a little touch of insecurity within herself.
I can tell this through the lines ‘and de pretty face sales gals exchanging slimming glances’ These lines show that she feels anger towards the girls for having the stereotypical traits of beauty that she was so against in the last poem. It shows how she wants society to change and become less bothered about size. The other two poems are about being away and missing home. ‘Like A Beacon’ is about Grace Nichols missing her home and the comforts that she used to have there. This poem shows that home is an important aspect of her life.
She also seems to take it as an important part of other peoples lives too as the last poem ‘Island Man’ is about a man from the Caribbean who lives in London: he misses his home and dreams about being there. Even though Nichols has written this poem about others, her sub heading is ‘for a Caribbean island man in London who still wakes up to the sound of the sea. ‘ From the sub heading, it could be imagined that she wrote this thinking about herself as well as others. By writing that sub heading, it sounds as if she relates to the ‘island man’ who features in her poem.
It seems as if she wrote the heading to show her readers in that position that she empathises with them. Titles of poems can sometimes say a lot about a poem. ‘Beauty’ is a short simple title. If the reader had only got as far as the title, it could be presumed that it would be similar in content to the stereotypical views of beauty or about the scenery. When the poem is read fully, it is actually about a fat black woman. It would surprise the reader because the first thought in a person’s head is not one of beauty. The poem ‘The Fat Black Woman Goes Shopping,’ has a long but precise title.
It tells you exactly what the poem is about. It is very direct and it hides nothing. To say, in the title of a poem ‘The Fat Black Woman… ‘ shows that Nichols is not ashamed to say, or to be who she is. One could presume that the poem is autobiographical because it changes from third-person text; to first-person text for the line ‘Lord is aggravating. ‘ This indicates that she knows personally how this situation feels. For her to describe herself as a fat black woman in a poem, which is likely to be read by many people, takes a strong-minded person who isn’t afraid to emphasise the fact that she is who she is.
Like A Beacon’ is not a title which appears to give anything away. The word ‘beacon’ can be associated with belisha beacons by a zebra crossing but this poem is not about these. In this poem, ‘beacon’ is meant as a strong, important light. Nichols is implying that her home is the warmth and strength that she loves and is an important part of her life. She’s basically trying to say that her home is the light of her life. ‘Island Man’ has a short title. It tells the reader very little (that it is about a man from an island) but the sub heading tells the reader a lot more.
For an island man who lives in London and still wakes up to the sound of the sea. ” It explains what the poem is about and what it is trying to say, but it is very long. It is an appropriate sub heading but is too long to be a title. ‘Island Man’ says what it needs to and the sub heading adds to it perfectly In most of these poems, she uses third person narrative but in one she uses first person and in another she switches between the two. In her poem ‘Beauty,’ Nichols uses third person narrative. This is an effective form to use because it makes the poem general and open to all ‘fat black women,’ not just Nichols herself.
If it were in first person narrative, the poem may not seem ‘beautiful’ it would seem quite conceited on Nichols’ part. In third person, the poem is left completely to the imagination of the reader. I. e. what the ‘fat black woman’ looks like and how she feels when she is ‘walking the fields’ or ‘riding the waves. ‘ In first person, the reader perhaps knows what she looks like and since she is so bold to say she is ‘beauty,’ the reader can get an idea what she is feeling too. ‘The Fat Black Woman Goes Shopping’ also uses third person narrative throughout the poem except for one line where it moves to first person.
Her use of both techniques is very effective and changes the mood of the poem largely. Though Nichols mainly uses third person it seems obvious that she is writing about her own experiences as she shifts to first person, which suggests that she agrees and somehow sympathises with the character in the poem. ‘Like A Beacon’ is the only poem in which she uses first person narrative throughout. It is effective as it gives the reader the feeling of understanding her character and her inner thoughts a lot better. The poem talks about how Nichols feels and what she misses from home such as the food that her mother used to cook.
If Nichols wrote the poem in third person narrative, it would not have such an impact because it would feel as if she was presuming that this was how people felt and it would not be as effective. Because this poem is about Nichols herself, it leaves the reader thinking or imagining how they would feel if they left home and what they would miss. ‘Island Man’ also uses third person narrative. This is effective in this poem as it makes the poem seem as if it is a dream. It distances the reader from the person in the poem and makes the whole situation seem further away.
If it had been written in first person, it would have made the reader feel closer to the person in the poem and so it would have made it feel less like a dream and more like life. Third person narrative gives you the feeling of distance, which makes the poem more enjoyable to read. Nichols uses many techniques to create the moods that she feels are appropriate for her poems. In her poem Beauty, Nichols wants to create the image of warm, calm settings. This is effective because the poem is based on beauty and warm, calm things are thought of as beautiful.
The Fat Black Woman Goes Shopping’ wants to create an angry and miserable mood. Nichols does this by using hard alliteration and pathetic fallacy. She uses winter to create cold images and hard alliteration to create the presence of anger and annoyance. This is effective in the poem because she is aggravated at the fact that the shop is prejudiced against women with clothes sizes over 14, as they don’t have any. The poem ‘Like A Beacon’ is trying to set the mood of the beacon being warmth and the light of her home, the Caribbean, and where she actually is, London, the cold place and not somewhere she would like to be.
She talks about the things that she misses about home: ‘in search of plantains Saltfish/sweet potatoes. ‘ The alliteration of the ‘s’ makes those two lines sound very calm and positive. ‘Island Man’ is trying to create two images: One of a beautiful, tropical place and the other of a dull, grey, cold place. Nichols tries to accomplish this mood using different styles of writing. For example: to make London sound dull, Nichols uses words such as ‘groggily’ which is related to waking up and still being really tired and miserable.
To make the Caribbean sound tropical, Nichols uses words like ’emerald’ which is related with beautiful jewellery so it make the island sound calm and a place on a similar level with Heaven. A main theme used in Nichols’ poetry is Cultural Identity. Nichols is not ashamed of who she is or what her background she has. She makes it very clear that her past is very important to her through her poetry. In her poem ‘Beauty,’ Nichols states that ‘Beauty is a fat black woman. ‘ This contrasts with the western ideal of female beauty i. e. white, thin, tall, and blonde.
Nichols directly challenges these stereotypes and strongly asserts black female cultural identity. It is essentially a celebration of the beauty seen in a large, black, curvaceous woman. ‘The Fat Black Woman Goes Shopping’ is very similar to ‘Beauty’ as it is also about a fat black woman. This poem also adds the fact of prejudice towards fat black women. This shows the divide between cultures. The poem ‘Like A Beacon,’ uses a different form of cultural identity. It shows the difference between London and the Caribbean through the way Nichols describes what she misses about her home.
She talks about the food that she used to eat (plantains, salt fish, sweet potatoes) which are not things that the English (white) culture is used to. Nichols’ poem ‘Island Man’ is similar to the cultural identity in her poem ‘Like A Beacon. ‘ It also talks about the differences between London and the Caribbean. This poem talks about the beauty and warmth of the Caribbean islands and the beaches there. It also talks about the cold and grey areas of London. It shows that the cultural identity of the island man is the opposite of a person who is from London.
Nichols’ language techniques vary in her poetry depending on what she feels she should use to emphasise points or moods. She uses personification in both her poems ‘Beauty’ and ‘The Fat Black Woman Goes Shopping. ‘ In ‘Beauty,’ she says ‘while the sea turns back to hug her shape. ‘ Nichols uses a soft mood to make the woman seem even more beautiful. She does this by saying; that even the sea wants to hug her-though the sea has no feelings. In the poem ‘The Fat Black Woman Goes Shopping,’ Nichols uses it to achieve almost the opposite affect of which it had in ‘Beauty.
She uses the lines ‘frozen thin mannequins fixing her with grin’ to emphasise the fact that the woman in this poem is quite paranoid, being in this shop. She presumes that even the plastic mannequins are laughing at her, though of course, that is not possible. This shows her insecurity about her size, particularly the views of others about it. Nichols uses alliteration in three of the four poems. In ‘The Fat Black Woman Goes Shopping,’ Nichols uses hard alliteration to create a flowing image (‘bright,’ ‘billowing,’ ‘breezy. ‘).
In the poem ‘Like A Beacon,’ Nichols uses this language technique when describing the food that her mother used to cook. The ‘s’ in ‘saltfish/sweet potatoes’ lingers as it is read and it gives the reader the sense of the lingering smells of these foods as they were being cooked and afterwards too. ‘Island Man’ also uses alliteration. Here, ‘s’ is also used (‘sun surfacing’) but she uses it to be sharp and snappy as the next word is ‘defiantly’ and sharp and snappy words or letters seem quite defiant. In some of her poems, Grace Nichols uses particular words to create a mood or image.
In ‘Island Man’ she uses hard words-such as ‘groggily,’ ‘metallic,’ ‘surge’ and ‘crumpled’-to create a dull and gloomy image of London. She also uses soft words-for example ‘surf,’ ‘wombing’ and ’emerald’-to create a bright, happy image of the Caribbean. In her poem ‘Beauty,’ she uses many soft word-such as ‘hug,’ ‘cheek,’ ‘breezed’ and ‘drifting’-to create the warm beautiful image of the woman in it. Grace Nichols uses many techniques to emphasise points and to make lines stand out. In the poem ‘Beauty,’ she uses repetition. She repeats the lines ‘Beauty s a fat black woman’ to emphasise what the poem is about. She uses the structure of the poem to emphasise the same point as she leaves ‘Beauty’ on its own to show that it is important. In ‘The Fat Black Woman Goes Shopping,’ Nichols uses rhyme, repetition and the structure to make lines stand out. Most of this poem is written in verses but to show how the character in the poem feels, she leaves the line ‘Lord is aggravating’ on its own. Though that is only one line, it seems to stand out and the reader reads that first. It makes you think a great deal about the feelings of the subject.
Nichols also uses rhyme at the end of this poem. It is the only time that she does this and it is very effective: ‘that when it comes to fashion the choice is lean nothing much beyond a size 14. ‘ It really stands out and makes the irritation of the subject much greater. If rhyme had been used throughout the poem, it would not have been so effective. Nichols’ use of repetition in this poem works very well. The poem is all about a long unproductive day and repetition exaggerates that. She repeats the word ‘journeying’ twice and it gives a real sense of boredom and tiredness.
In her poem ‘Like A Beacon,’ Nichols also uses the structure to emphasise a main point. She wants to make it clear about how she feels. She has written ‘I Need This Link’ on its own, in between the two verses. The poem flows very well until it gets to that line. Nichols separates it and this makes the reader stop and think about what the poet is trying to say. ‘Island Man’ uses repetition. Nichols uses it to exaggerate the first word and to make the mood of the poem clearer. It works well and it accentuates the dull image that Nichols is trying to paint of London e. g. ‘groggily groggily. ‘
These four poems by Grace Nichols are poems that I have found very interesting. They all use ideas about cultural identity and racial difference and this makes the poems very engrossing. Though I have never been in the situation of missing home (‘Like A Beacon’ and ‘Island Man’) or having to deal with prejudice against my size (‘The Fat Black Woman Goes Shopping’), I feel, through reading the poetry that I understand and sympathise greatly with people who have to deal with these things. The poems have given me a greater understanding of the culture of Grace Nichols and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading and working on them.