IT HAPPENED SHORTLY after her first assault of schizophrenia, when Jean Breese, as she then was, was listening to the radio. The radio was one in all many voices in her head that informed her what to do, typically fiercely, typically kindly. This voice was swaying and alluring, Otis Redding singing “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”. So she did what he mentioned. She took the bus from Patty Hill, her village in north-west Jamaica, to the one bay she knew, Montego Bay, and sat by the seaside scribbling as if to save lots of her life.
She seldom discovered that means in these orders from the voices, however this time a Rasta man walked as much as her. His hair was tangled lengthy like hers, and he requested: “Daughter, you is a poet?” When she mentioned sure, he requested her to recite a poem in a present. The visitor artist was Mutabaruka, then one of many slickest males in Jamaica at placing traces of poetry over a reggae beat—dub poetry, of which she grew to become the primary and one of many few feminine performers on the planet.
What she carried in her head from then on was the cacophony of the entire island, from the rowdy streets of Kingston, the place she went to drama college, to the humid, ferny, itchy bush and the cascading rivers, from the blackbird singing of residence within the mango tree, to shouts of “Whore!” in a combat at a rum bar. She held her mom’s voice, reciting poems to her as they rested on her mattress within the sun-trap afternoons. She channelled the preacher asserting the day of tribulation, the chained slave on the Center Passage “squeezed right into a deep effectively of darkness”, the younger blood swaggering down the street (“a litre in mi pocket/an a whistle in mi teet”) and her grandmother, who largely introduced her up on her farm within the hills, recommending “de easy tings of life, mi expensive”:
ah hoe mi corn/an de backache gone
plant mi peas/arthritis ease
One after the other she wrote them down and spoke them out, hectoring or wistful or wild, hungry to make music from these phrases.
The poem that introduced her to individuals’s consideration, “Riddym Ravings” in 1988, was written out of her schizophrenia, as she begged the medical doctors within the hospital to “tek de radio outa mi head” whereas additionally eager to push it up into her stomach and let her unborn youngster pay attention. In “Crimson Insurgent Tune” she admitted to “uncooked hearth insanity”. But this insanity additionally unfold to the voice of the sector slave, pressured to lie down on “Massa mattress”, and to the ensuing half-breed, a brown-skin insurgent like herself, fed up with “de black white query” and emphatic that “I nah/tek no abuse fram eida route”. She discovered her personal voice additionally within the wind, the Trades that blew ancestral echoes and slave cries from Africa, and she or he stored the identify Breeze, solely altering the spelling, even after that first marriage ended. “Binta” she adopted, within the Rasta years of her early 20s, as a west African identify that means “daughter of”. Daughter of the wind. That was the place she belonged after demise, not with roots and worms.
From 1985 she divided her life between England, world-touring, and Jamaica, between patwa (simply Jamaican, as she considered it) and the standardised English she had spoken in her middle-class household. But English voices hardly ever got here by way of, solely these of residence, and the ladies of residence. It felt like an obligation to file them, because the lone feminine in a strikingly macho world. At first she toned her femininity down, sporting navy khakis to carry out, however not for lengthy. Dub was going to have to regulate to her, not vice versa. She cherished that fierce, funky reggae beat, together with Rastafarian chanting and African drums—adored Bob Marley, and all he had meant for Jamaican self-confidence and independence—however ladies’s lives have been too delicate and complicated for all that masculine swagger. Reggae may really feel as inflexible as iambic pentameter, so she blended in rhythms from jazz and mento, Jamaican people music, and, for quieter choices, took blues out of her sleeve.
Thus she spoke out for all of the working-class ladies inhabiting her head. The housekeeper, her apron “all de greases from…cooking a lot greens”, who smells it earlier than rolling it up for the laundry; the spouse on an “bizarre mawning” who, having despatched the youngsters off to high school (“want me by no means did breed however Lawd/mi love dem”), and contemplated what to cook dinner for dinner, all of a sudden bursts out bawling on the sight of her personal frock pinned on the road; the final lament over males who cross by way of, however to not keep. The voices unfold additional, till the entire feminine third world clamoured in her too. One in every of her collections, “Third World Lady”, had on its cowl a defiant black teenager exhibiting her new younger breasts. Within the title poem this lady watched by way of the bushes because the rich-world vacationer bronzed on his fenced-off seaside, reminding him that he didn’t know her, that he had no proper to imagine he may contact her, and that “the rape’s been finished”.
Life was burdensome to those ladies, because it usually was to her. She had six or seven breakdowns, throughout which she would put herself into hospital and consign the kid care to her mom. But in good occasions she may hardly have been happier, stuffed with pealing laughter, sitting blissfully on her verandah and going with the neighbours to drink beer. The ladies of her poems, too, had compensations. The housewife in “Spring Cleansing”, for instance, soothed by the twenty third Psalm:
absolutely goodness and mercy/shall comply with me
she decide up de broom/an she sweeping
all de days of my life/an she sweeping…
As for her Caribbean sisters usually, she noticed them strolling proudly, “shaping mountain/wid we foot”, swaying their hips, carrying on their heads what appeared like a burden however was freedom water, life-giving and life-saving. “Chile, don’t yuh ever neglect de imaginative and prescient”, her grandmother had informed her: a imaginative and prescient that brightened her eye and washed her by way of like cooling springs. She wouldn’t neglect. She could be mad, however she wasn’t going to remain like Bertha Mason in “Jane Eyre”, sitting within the attic, “my track lock up tight/eena mi troat”, till she set the place on hearth. She was going to sing lengthy, loud and now, her voices. Her track. ■
This text appeared within the Obituary part of the print version below the headline “Listening to the voices”