"A Midnight Woman To The Bobby"

From Songs of Jamaica


Spanish Town, Kingston


No palm me up, you dutty brute,
You’ jam mount’ mash like ripe bread-fruit;
You fas’n now, but wait lee ya,
I’ll see you grunt under de law.

You t’ink you wise, but we wi’ see;
You not de fus’ one fas’ wid me;
I’ll lib fe see dem tu’n you out,
As sure as you got dat mash’ mout’.

I born right do’n beneat’ de clack
(You ugly brute, you tu’n you’ back?)
Don’ t’ink dat I’m a come-aroun’ ,
I born right ‘way in ‘panish Town.

Care how you try, you caan’ do mo’
Dan many dat was hyah befo’;
Yet whe’ dey all o’ dem te-day?
De buccra dem no kick dem way?

Ko ‘pon you’ jam samplatta nose:
‘Cos you wear Mis’r Koshaw clo’es
You t’ink say you’s de only man,
Yet fus’ time ko how you be’n ‘tan.

You big an’ ugly ole tu’n-foot
Be’n neber know fe wear a boot;
An’ chigger nyam you’ tumpa toe,
Till nit full i’ like herrin’ row.

You come from mountain naked-‘kin,
An’ Lard a mussy! you be’n thin,
For all de bread-fruit dem be’n done,
Bein’ ‘poil’ up by tearin’ sun:

De coco couldn’ bear at all,
For, Lard! de groun’ was pure white-marl;
An’ t’rough de rain part o’ de year
De mango tree dem couldn’ bear.

An’ when de pinch o’ time you feel
A ‘pur you a you’ chigger heel,
You lef’ you’ district, big an’ coarse,
An’ come join buccra Police Force.

An’ now you don’t wait fe you’ glass
But trouble me wid you’ jam fas’;
But wait, me frien’, you day wi’ come,
I’ll see you go same lak a some.

Say wha’?—‘res’ me? —you go to hell!
You t’ink Judge don’t know unno well?
You t’ink him gwin’ go sentance me
Widout a soul fe witness i'?


Heather Hathaway asserts, “The linguistic legacy of McKay’s complicated relationship to the speech of the peasantry pervades…nearly every work in the author’s first two volumes of poetry” (Hathaway, 35). McKay’s “A Midnight Woman to the Bobby,” “one of McKay’s most accomplished dialect pieces” (Cooper, 41), is laced quite heavily with Jamaican dialect and colloquial expressions of the peasant class. Wayne Cooper remarks, “the poem is remarkable for its vigorous, forthright use of authentic Jamaican language, as well as for its bitterly ironic commentary on the rural conditions that sometimes forced young men into the constabulary” (Cooper, 41). In the poem, a Spanish Town prostitute verbally lambastes a young, inexperienced constable for attempting to arrest her. “From start to finish [the prostitute] keeps up a barrage of priceless Jamaican insults. She insults [the constable’s] mouth…his nose…and [even] his feet” (James, 105). She begins, “No palm me up, you dutty brute,” or, “don’t put your hands on me,” and she continues to berate him throughout the poem.

Like in “Quashie to Buccra,” McKay gives agency and voice to the poem’s subjugated character, yet in “A Midnight Woman to the Bobby,” both characters are members of a subjugated class. They are pit against one another by unfortunate circumstance. Hathaway comments, ““[this poem] captures the tension that emerges between peasant-turned prostitute and peasant-turned-constable under the corrupting influence of the city” (Hathaway, 38). The midnight woman taunts,

You come from mountain naked—‘kin,
An’ Lard a mussy! you be’n thin,
For all de bread-fruit dem be’n done,
Bein’ ‘poil’ up by tearin’ sun.

She taunts the young constable for turning to the British-imposed police force in an attempt to escape the hardships of rural poverty. She derides, “’Cos you wear Mis’r Koshaw cloe’es/ You t’ink say you’s de only man.” The bobby wears the clothes issued to him by Col. Kershaw, the Inspector General of the Police in 1911. The prostitute “clearly has no respect for a black man in what she perceives as a white man’s uniform” (Cooper, 41), yet her situation is regrettable as well. James claims, “McKay is effectively identifying prostitution with policing, giving the distinct impression that policing is the more reprehensible of the two. Both “professions” are fruits of desperation, but the policeman’s is more repugnant” (James, 106). McKay offers his social criticism regarding the deplorable and often unavoidable situation of the poor in Jamaica through this sharp, barb-tongued midnight woman. Heather Hathaway notes, "McKay…was the first Jamaican poet to use the local dialect as a vehicle of social protest” (Hathaway, 37).

“A Midnight Woman to the Bobby” is one of McKay’s most successful poems, and it clearly evidences McKay’s deep and abiding relationship to the Jamaican dialect, people, and plight. As James claims, “For faithfulness to the Jamaican language, for rhythm, for critical social commentary, skillfully and organically embellished with humor, “A Midnight Woman to the Bobby” is unsurpassed. It would stand beside the very best creations of Jamaica’s most accomplished creole language poet, Louise Bennett” (James, 109).



1 comment:

MayaC said...

A really interesting essay, just wondering if you could share the full citations of the sources referenced. Maybe I am just missing the place they are listed? Thank you!