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Island Man by Grace Nichols

topless man standing on beach

Photo by cottonbro on

(for a Caribbean island man in London who still wakes up to the sound of the sea)
Morning and island man wakes up
to the sound of blue surf
in his head
the steady breaking and wombing
wild seabirds
and fishermen pushing out to sea
the sun surfacing defiantly
from the east; of his small emerald island
he always comes back groggily groggily
Comes back to sands
of a grey metallic soar
to a surge of wheels
to dull North Circular roar
muffling muffling
his crumpled pillow waves
island man heaves himself
Another London day

Short Biography of Grace Nichols

Nichols was born in Georgetown in British Guyana in 1950. She was a teacher and journalist in the Caribbean until she moved to Britain in 1977. Both of these cultures and how they interact are important to her.

What is the message of the poem Island man?

A man from a Caribbean island is living in London. He wakes up with dreams and thoughts of his homeland, but he is forced to return to the reality of city life. The poem, therefore, deals with different cultures in a more nostalgic and easy-going way.

The man wakes up thinking of the sights and sounds of a Caribbean beach. But it is an idealized image. He only remembers the good things about it. This seems to show he wishes he was still there (lines 1-10).

Lines 11-19: He slowly comes back to the reality of daybreak in London – grey buildings and the sound of traffic. He reluctantly ‘heaves himself up to face the day.
The title suggests he is alone. So the island man suffers from loneliness and isolation. “Blue surf” of line three contrasts with the ‘grey’ London of line 13.

The descriptions of his home place make it sound like paradise (summer resort)  where the sun shines daily and the fishermen go to sea daily too – contrasting sharply with the dreariness of London and its sluggish atmosphere.

What is the theme of Island man?

What does Wombing mean in Island man? “Wombing” of line 5 suggests the comfort and security of his place of birth.
“Wild seabirds” of line 6 is a natural image that contrasts with the ‘metallic’ artificiality of London traffic.

The first ten lines are like fond memories of the Caribbean. “Groggily” of line 11 could mean sleepily as if the man is returning to reality though he does not regain his full consciousness yet.

Note how the second part of the poem suggests a subtle resentment of the London lifestyle:  the ‘surge of wheels’ and the ‘dull North Circular roar’. Also, note how such a boring lifestyle intrudes on the man’s dreams (lines 16-8).

Line16 suggests he is suppressing thoughts of home as he prepares himself for reality. There is also the suggestion that real life is a struggle both physically and mentally (heaves) suggests pain and effort. Finally, the last line stands alone to show that the island man has now come out of his dream. The word ‘another’ suggests monotonicity meaning that he is going through this every day.

A final reflection on line 17: “his crumpled pillow waves”. The line suggests that his dreams of the sea give him comfort while he is asleep (with the creased pillow under control underneath his head). Without these dreams, he has to face reality.

Note the contrasting descriptions in the poem. Though the island man would rather be in the natural paradise of the Caribbean and though he prefers it to the dull artificial greyness of London, he has no choice at the end but faces that reality with reluctance.

Depiction in Poem

In the first stanza of the poem, the poet depicts Africa as a young black African woman who presents her sweet pleasures in the form of sugarcane. Africa is famous for its sugarcane crop which is produced in such abundance that the outsiders will always wink at its sweets. The lines “Thus she had lain sugar sweet” suggest that the region has always presented sweets to the world. In other words, due to its docile nature, Africa has always encouraged people to exploit her resources and thus abandon her whenever the usurpers feel satiated.  Her desserts are her hair and her feet are golden.

The huge mountains are her breasts and the two Niles are her tears. In the poet’s depiction of Africa, she is personified to be a young black lady of immeasurable body pleasures, but the” two Niles her tears” suggest that she is dejected and her tears tell the story of her being repressed throughout the ages. In this process of repression and deprivation, she has lost her identity and simply performs as a woman who works in a brothel, who, despite the realization of her miseries and misfortunes, makes herself available to more repression and exploitation.

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