Analysis of Poem Island Man by Grace Nichols

Updated on January 26, 2019
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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 | Source

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 real time London but who is still dreaming 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.

'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 the ideal - blue sky and 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

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 metre (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 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 colours - 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 that word wombing, a verb which suggests birth, home, motherhood and nurturing?

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

The second stanza further elaborates this ideal image of the island life. The birds, the fishermen, are actively working at sea, 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 world, 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, surge being 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.

The fourth stanza sees the man reluctantly heave 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 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 having the same consonants, producing textured sound:

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 echo of sound:



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

© 2018 Andrew Spacey


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    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      2 weeks ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Yes, that is correct.

    • profile image


      2 weeks ago

      The narrator feels resigned. They're wistful for a place far away. It starts with a longing, then this becomes a deep-rooted sadness. The irregular rhyme scheme represents the restlessness the narrator feels, unable to settle on a single rhyme scheme throughout the poem. There is a definite contrast between his contentment in his dreams and his resigned frustration at the endless monogamy of city life.

      Does that answer how the narrator feels?

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      2 weeks ago

      I still don't understand how the narrator feels throughout the poem, that's all my test is on

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      3 months ago

      hi, I love this poem, it really teaches us about our world in two different ways, this really helped me with my work as well. :D

    • profile image

      Oliver Bond 

      3 months ago

      Really helpful for my English "test" tomorrow

    • profile image


      5 months ago

      To show one contrast between life in the Caribbean and life in London, Nichols references the sounds that the Island Man can hear, firstly in his dream ("the sound of blue surf in his head" in lines 3 and 4 of the poem), and secondly in line 15 with the phrase "dull North Circular roar". The reader can aimost hear the waves breaking on the Caribbean beach with the use of the noun "surf", which also has connotations of having fun and relaxing, maybe being on holiday. In contrast, the use of the noun "roar" to describe the sound of the traffic in London serves two purposes. Firstly, it helps the reader to imagine the amount of traffic that is passing by on the North Circular Road and the noise it is making; secondly, it suggests possible danger, as a wild animal roars, maybe to reflect the danger of living in a big city like London compared with the relative safety of a Caribbean island.


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