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Analysis of the Poem "Island Man" by Grace Nichols

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Grace Nichols

Grace Nichols

Grace Nichols and "Island Man"

"Island Man" is a short poem that focuses on the cultural identity of a Caribbean man who wakes up in present-day London but who dreams about his native island.

Through astute use of imagery and metaphor, the poem juxtaposes the two environments within the mind of the third-person speaker.

The main theme is the cultural split experienced by this individual, the contrasts between the two, island life versus city life.

Grace Nichols based her poem on her actual real-life experiences when she first came to the UK and London in 1977. She lived close to the busy North Circular Road in London and the traffic noise reminded her of the sea surf back 'home' in the Caribbean.

It was first published in 1984 in her book The Fat Black Woman's Poems, which concentrates on cultural divides from the female perspective, and uses both Creole (Caribbean language) and English.

As the poet states:

'It's important for me to embrace both languages because of the constant interaction between the two cultures.'

As the poem has no punctuation the reading of this poem becomes more challenging. Natural breaks and pauses occur, especially towards the end of the poem, the rhythms changing line by line, and the reader has to negotiate line endings and breaks which slow the whole poem down from time to time.

Grace Nichols was born in Guyana in 1950. Despite this country being part of South America it is closely tuned into Caribbean island culture (with its historical links to Britain) so her poem relates to the experience of a man newly arrived in Britain's capital city, London.

He feels isolated and lonely and still connects the new sounds and images with his former home island life. He dreams of the ideal - blue sky and the emerald isle - yet in reality lives surrounded by dull tarmac and noisy traffic.

The title itself is ambiguous. This man now lives on the island of Great Britain but was born on a Caribbean island. Essentially he is torn between the two but belongs to both. He cannot ever forget his roots or his memories but has to live in the here and now to survive.

"Island Man"

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 surge of wheels
to dull North Circular roar

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muffling muffling
his crumpled pillow waves
island man heaves himself

Another London day

Analysis of "Island Man"

"Island Man" is a free verse poem of five stanzas, 19 lines in total.

There is no set rhyme scheme or meter (meter in American English) but some line endings rhyme: for example, sea/defiantly/groggily and soar/roar bringing a temporary and loose sense of familiarity.

With no punctuation the poem becomes informal and free-flowing, the reader is challenged to pause at the right time and for the right length of time. It's a kind of stream of consciousness narrative, the speaker observing this individual waking up from a dream perhaps, with these images and sounds in his head.

The poem starts off with a single word, Morning, simple and direct, as if this is totally normal or something of a revelation. Either way, the scene is set. Here is the man waking up, the island man, which suggests that this is an independent person, isolated maybe all by himself.

There are sounds and colors - blue surf - the waves are breaking but only in his head; mentally he's far away in the Caribbean, the reader not yet aware of the contrasting physical reality.

Note the line length and breaks. The second and third lines have the same number of syllables (slightly different rhythm) and both flow into the shorter fourth line where a natural caesura makes the reader pause, reflecting the wave break.

  • The fifth line is interesting as it describes the waves breaking one by one but what about the word wombing, a verb that suggests birth, home, motherhood, and nurturing?

It applies to the sea, the sea giving birth, gestation, and safety, and the natural mother.

The second stanza further elaborates on this ideal image of the island life. The birds, the fishermen, are actively working at sea, and the sun personified is rising from the east, the direction of the new day.

Note the personal's his emerald island (as if he were the owner).

That last line of the second stanza sees a repeated groggily, groggily he returns to reality. His mind isn't quite alert, he's still between worlds, between cultures as he wakes up.

The first line of the third stanza combines the two - he returns from the island sands but no, they're not island sands at all, they're grey and metallic and seem to rise. There is a surge of wheels, the surge is a strong movement, along the North Circular, a major road in London, which produces a dull roar.

This contrast, of sea and road, of surf and traffic, of ideal and reality, is what makes the poem tick.

In the fourth stanza, the man reluctantly heaves himself out of bed. He knows he has to get on and maybe go to work in the city, perhaps even drive down that same road he hears when he wakes up each morning.

The humdrum existence he lives in is clearly a struggle for him. In his heart, he longs to return to the paradisical island of his birth.

Poetic Devices in "Island Man"

Look out for these devices in Island Man:


Words close together have the same consonants, producing textured sounds:

the sound of blue surf/the sun surfacing/heaves himself


The crumpled pillow waves - the pillow becomes a part of the sea.


Note the reinforced groggily groggily signifying that the man is coming round in a slow, reluctant, unclear way.

And muffling muffling again places emphasis on the covering/softening action.

Internal Rhyme

There are some internal rhymes bonding lines, creating an echo of sound:



An Introduction to West Indian Poetry, Laurence A. Breiner, CUP,1998

© 2018 Andrew Spacey

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