‘Island Man’ by Grace Nichols is a nineteen-line poem that is separated into stanzas of varying lengths. Upon an initial glance at the text, the spacing of the words within the stanzas stands out. For example, the phrase “groggily groggily” is separated from the first part of the line, “he always comes back.” The same kind of indention occurs in line three of the third stanza as well. It is indented in significantly further than the rest of the lines.
There is no pattern of rhyme or rhythm in its six stanzas. They are also varied to a significant degree in their length— in line number and word number. For example, the first stanza is five lines and the last is only a single line. Some of the lines have six words, others have only one.
The poem begins with the speaker to give a stream of consciousness depiction of an island and what it is like to wake up there. Everything is calm, the birds and waves are the only sounds one can hear. There are men pushing out their boats to fish, and the sun is defiant in its entry into the sky.
In the third stanza, there is a transition, the man is forced to return to London and the grey world of the “North Circular” road. The cars fly past him, as does time. He has to drag himself from one day to the next, there is nothing defiant about this kind of life.
You can read the full poem here.
Language, Imagery, and Contrast
The language within ‘Island Man’ is also interesting. It flows seamlessly from thought to thought. In fact, there is no punctuation in the poem at all. This allows the reader to take their time, or move quickly from line to line. Nichols has not structured it one way or the other.
This style of writing is known as stream of consciousness; titled thus due to the fact that it allows a speaker’s thoughts to exit the mind unhampered by a filter. Everything one thinks is put down on the page. Often these thoughts can be disconnected and hard to follow, but they always paint an interesting picture of the person thinking or speaking them, and the world they are operating in. The same can be said for ‘Island Man’ in which the speaker is able to convey a depressed tone through a series of dark images in the last three stanzas.
The contrasting settings in which feature in the text are easily compared through the different images associate with them and the words Nichols uses. In the first lines, it is warm. The “island man” wakes up to the peaceful sound of the “blue surf” and a womblike feeling which relates to comfort and safety. By the time the speaker gets to the fourth stanza things change. The text moves from focusing on natural images to a manufactured world only defined by the beginning of one day and the end of another.
Analysis of Island Man
the steady breaking and wombing
In the first stanza of ‘Island Man’ the speaker begins with the single word, “Morning.” It has its own line, giving the reader time to imagine what this means. It is especially important in the life of the island man who is welcomed back into wakefulness by the sounds of the island itself. There is the “blue surf” and the way it breaks on the shore. The metronomic regularity of this natural occurrence is extremely peaceful. So much so that Nichols uses the word “wombing” to describe it.
Images related to the womb inherently seem safe, warm, and peaceful. The man is wrapped up in this feeling when he wakes up. It is an envious way to live and contrasts to the extreme with the second half of the poem.
the sun surfacing defiantly
The calm images of the island continue into the second stanza. Here, the speaker describes the sound of the “wild seabirds”. These two words are also contained in their own line, again leaving space for a reader to sit with the image, and the sounds one associates with it.
Nichols goes on to speak a few words on the “fisherman pushing out to sea”. These men are going about their jobs in a matter of fact way. They are working with the earth to make a living, and within a setting that is infinitely more beneficial to one’s health, mental and physical, than those depicted in stanza four and five.
The speaker also adds that the sun is just coming up. It rises “defiantly,” with purpose as if fighting back against the night and everything the dark represents. It is daring to be hopeful, warm, and optimistic in a world that can fall dark very quickly.
from the east
he always comes back groggily groggily
The third stanza serves as a bridge between the first half of the poem and the second. The man who woke so peaceful on the island has to go back to the west, “from the east.” In ‘Island man’ the east is associated with all the peaceful images of stanzas one and two. The West is very different. He enters back into this world “groggily groggily”. He is in a stupor, dragged low by the life he has to go back to.
Comes back to sands
to dull north circular roar
The fourth stanza speaks of the “sands” of passing time. Time is part of his life, and it goes on and on, slowly, when he is in his other home, London. The world he goes back to is represented by the “north circular”. This is the name of a busy dual carriageway road in North London that is so very different from the island he left behind. The cars “soar” around it, as if trying to mimic the soaring of the sea birds and the roaring of the waves, but it is not even close to the same.
Stanzas Five and Six
island man heaves himself
Another London day
In the last two stanzas, there is another instance of repetition with the word “muffling” used twice. It is only when he got back to the real world of London that the repetition began. The smoothness of his thoughts and feelings on the island has evaporated.
Now everything is heavy, dirty, unfeeling, and cold. He has to “heave” himself from one task to the next. The only thing that he has to look forward to is “Another London day”. Then perhaps in the future, a return to his island.