ALICE JAMES BOOKS (US) & PEEPAL TREE PRESS (UK)
“Blind Ossian IX” by Calum Colvin
Shara McCallum’s magnificent sixth book mythologizes the poet Robert Burns and his imagined Jamaican descendants through a chorus of intergenerational voices. This collection is timely and timeless as it reframes the complicated genealogies created by colonialism. Erasure is one of the colonizer’s most insidious tools and McCallum’s gorgeous monologues serve to reclaim the voices ignored, unsaid, and unclaimed because of colonialism. These poems offer an intricate history more honest and unforgiving than the tidy myths we’re content to live with.
No Ruined Stone imagines what might have happened if Robert Burns had sailed from Scotland in 1786, as planned, to take a job on a slave plantation in Jamaica. Supported by research, it is a subtle, multi-layered verse narrative, voiced mainly by the poet himself and later by his granddaughter, passing for white. The worlds it vividly presents beget reflections on creativity, history, slavery, race and many other issues. It is an exceptional work, a memorable achievement.
Shara McCallum brings her gorgeous poetics to a story of slavery and colonialism, challenging the historical archive’s sheer, unyielding wall by going not over or around it, but fearlessly through. In musical, evocative language, her poems imagine the what-if-that-almost-was of Scotland’s best-loved Bard, following Burns into the life he might have lived as a plantation overseer in Jamaica—then seeing his enslaved granddaughter back to Scotland to claim a life reserved for white women.
What if Robert Burns, who was set to sail to Jamaica three times to work as a so-called ‘bookkeeper’ on a plantation, had indeed travelled there? In Shara McCallum’s unsparing and tender-hearted book, Burns’ fever-dream of escape gains weirdly satisfying substance. A dramatic trajectory unfolds from the Bard’s sensitive, perhaps too individualistic responses to his new life, all the way to his fictive ‘mulatta’ granddaughter uneasily ‘passing’ in Edinburgh society. Seemingly controlled words surge with echoes; poems keep double-entry accounts, striping the page, laddering like stockings. McCallum achieves an un-haunting. Characters are realer than real, less imaginary than re-storied. Her end notes tell us that on ‘Scots-owned Jamaican plantations the mortality rate for Africans was […] less than four years upon arrival’. The power of those vanished lives compounds with McCallum’s own journeys to Jamaica and Scotland as a disabused and loving researcher. No Ruined Stone vibrates with recovered truth. Like the returning dead, whom nothing ‘will quench or unhunger’, this work wants you, wants us, ‘to begin again’.