“the beach is deserted except for a lone wave of rubbish”Grace Nichols
Like An Heiress was published in Nichols’ 2020 collection Passport to Here and There. It is part of the ‘Snapshot Sonnets’ section, written after a return trip to Georgetown. Nichols recalls being overwhelmed with nostalgia at the chance to rediscover the place where she grew up. She sees the entire collection as an opportunity to bridge together the two places and cultures that shaped her: Guyana and England.
The poem is a recollection of a visit to a local beach that sits on the Atlantic Coast. Yet instead of being faced with an idyllic view, Nichols is aghast at the ‘wave’ of discarded rubbish. Nichols expresses guilt and shame at being able to retreat back to her hotel ‘like a tourist’ before dwelling on the quick passing of time and what it means for the future of the planet.
Like an Heiress Context
Grace Nichols was born in Guyana in 1950 and spent the first part of her childhood in a remote coastal village. Aged eight, during Guyana’s fight for independence from British colonial rule, her family relocated to the capital, Georgetown.
As well as being an inspiration to Black female poets, Nichols is considered a pioneer of performance poetry, a genre renowned for inciting critical thinking and change on major social topics such as police brutality, gentrification and climate change. There has always been an oral tradition of poetry but performance poetry as a distinctive movement emerged in the early to mid-1900s and was used as a powerful tool in Black communities to express anger and activism.
Among her various awards and accolades, Nichols was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2007, a society founded by King George IV in 1820 to ‘reward literary merit and excite literary talent’, bestowing upon her the title Grace Nichols FRSL. In 2021, she was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, open to poets from any region of the Commonwealth.
The titular simile comparing Nichols to an heiress could be an expression of the deep connection that she feels when she returns to her hometown of Georgetown. While it could convey pride that she gets to inherit the island culture, there is also disappointment that her birthright has been tainted, as seen in the image of the Atlantic coastline strewn with plastic pollution and discarded waste. Nichols dwells on what will be left of the planet for mankind to inherit if we don’t make a change and tackle the climate crisis we are faced with.
The poem consists of 14 lines and is written in sonnet form as a homage to Nichol’s connection with English culture. This form, along with the poem being set in her hometown of Georgetown, sees her combine the two sides of her cultural identity.
It begins in the classic Shakespearean rhythm of iambic pentameter, yet quickly delineates from it. This is perhaps an indicator of the poet wishing to distance herself from a Western society that has been the biggest contributor to the climate crisis. Or perhaps it is an indicator of her wavering ability to control her thoughts as she contemplates the devastating ‘wave of rubbish’ and its impact on the planet.
The use of free verse ensures that a pleasant rhyme or rhythm doesn’t detract from the key message of the poem: the climate crisis.
While some other poems by Nichols combine Creole and standard English, this poem does not. This arguably complements the disconnect she feels when retreating to her hotel room ‘like a tourist’.
Identity and belonging: Nichols uses the poem, like many of her other works, to bridge the gap between her dual identity as British-Guyanese. She experiences her return to her childhood home as an opportunity to reconnect and rediscover it through adult eyes. She is saddened, and filled with guilt and shame, by the realisation that she is now more ‘like a tourist’ than she had previously considered herself to be.
Heritage: The poem metaphorically presents Nichols as an heiress to her heritage and the treasures of her childhood memories. The idea of her as an heiress conveys the rich Guyanese history of her ancestors as she reflects on her connection with them. It could also convey her fear of not being able to preserve and protect this heritage for generations to come due to the increasing threat of the climate crisis.
Climate crisis/change: As a performance poet and strong advocate for tackling societal issues, Nichols uses her platform to express the urgency for the change required to tackle the climate crisis. The devastating image of the waves of rubbish along the shoreline wall conveys the threat of the crisis. The final line addressing the ‘quickening years and fate of our planet’ should be a cause of concern for the reader as Nichols highlights the uncertain fate of mankind if change does not occur.
Linking to other Poems
- Thirteen – Caleb Femi
- Homing – Liz Berry
- A Portable Paradise – Roger Robinson
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