Jean Harrison’s The Tilt evokes her time teaching in post-colonial Ghana and returning later to experience the changes that have taken place. What I was particularly struck by is her clear-eyed ability to describe and address the complex relationship between the former colonial culture and attitudes and the lives of indigenous Ghanaians.
A poem in which does this most effectively is To get rid of the snowdrop. About this poem, Steve Whitaker, Literature correspondent of The Yorkshire Times, says: “Taking her place in a hierarchy which automatically elevated Europeans to the upper echelons of the Ghanaian teaching profession, the liberally progressive Englishwoman opens several paradoxical locks in one vignette.”
To get rid of the snowdrop
It is the calm and silent water that drowns a man
A European winter
spread its chill across both parties –
us, the ‘white, imported experts’,
you, each one the pick of a generation
too early to have had a chance of a degree,
teaching now in your old school.
We were in love with ‘relevance’, avid
to heave Henry VIII out of the syllabus,
rid biology of the snowdrop, an exotic
whose attributes you’d learned by heart
and loved as proof
all human brains are equally good
or better here, where frost and snow mean nothing
and yet you could describe that flower.
You taught younger forms, we polished exam groups,
students who aimed never to come back,
or if they did
to take our places, not yours,
who’d never been asked to morning coffee
in the Head’s bungalow. They wouldn’t feel easy
mixing with their former teachers, words
never spoken directly for contradiction,
pushing up shoots.
When a new regime
moved break to the staffroom, you, and we,
still gathered in clumps of our own kind,
reserved and cool.
The writing here seems so succinct, so concerned with the point it is making. The focused style and tone does not, however, compromise the poem’s craft, but in fact is part of it. For example the first three couplets form a single sentence, in which the reader is immediately aware of the main tensions, while the European winter and ‘white imported experts’ prefigure the snowdrop imagery. The lines are well-judged with breaks true to the rhythms of natural speech.
Then follows what feels like the second section of four couplets, once again a single sentence packing a great deal of information and punch. Here we meet the snowdrop and grasp the ambiguity – its significance and irrelevance. And then there’s the quiet irony of the final couplet of this sentence, that perhaps understanding something beyond one’s experience is a sign of the human brain being ‘better here’.
The last section of the poem tackles the dynamics, the ‘them and us’and extends the snowdrop metaphor with ‘sinking underground/pushing up roots’ and the groups in the staffroom ‘gathered in clumps’. The narrator’s sympathetic attitude remains, nonetheless, clear-eyed, guiding us through entrenched attitudes to the uncomfortable concluding reality.
Jean uses Ashanti proverbs as epigraphs to some of the poems. In this one it feels to me that in terms of Ghanaian culture, it could be that hang-overs from colonialism are ‘the calm and silent water’.