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CSEC English B: Ol' Higue by Mark McWatt Poem Analysis

Updated: May 28, 2021




Ol’ Higue

Mark McWatt


You think I like all this stupidness

gallivanting all night without skin

burning myself out like cane –fire

To frighten the foolish?

And for what? A few drops of baby blood?

You think I wouldn’t rather

take my blood seasoned in fat

black-pudding, like everyone else?

And don’t even talk ‘bout the pain of salt

And having to bend these old bones down

To count a thousand grains of rice!


If only babies didn’t smell so nice!

And if I could only stop

Hearing the soft, soft call

Of that pure blood running in new veins,

Singing the sweet song of life

Tempting an old, dry-up woman who been

Holding her final note for years,

Afraid of the dying hum…


Then again, if I didn’t fly and come

to that fresh pulse in the middle of the night,

how would you, mother,

name your ancient dread,

And who to blame

for the murder inside your head…?

Believe me –

As long as it have women giving birth

A poor ol’ higue like me can never dead.





Summary

The 'Ole Higue' is a supernatural character found in Caribbean folklore. This nocturnal being is also called a jumbie, soucouyant and backoo as is a mixture of a vampire and a witch. In Caribbean folklore the Ole Higue or Old Hag is an old woman. She sheds her skin at nights; stores it in a mortar and turns into a ball of fire before going about to suck the blood of babies.

In the poem, the Ole Higue appears bitter and unhappy with the circumstance she is in. She defends the involuntary nature of her compulsive behaviour. She seems repulsed by the mothers of young children, yet she believes she plays an important role in society by being a scapegoat for the infanticidal tendencies of some mothers and the inexplicable. She comes across as self-centered, but also clever and insightful.

The Ole Higue wishes that she didn't have such an affinity for children, however, she knows that the myth of her existence can never die as long as mothers have children and need something- or someone to blame for their deaths.

The mood of the poem is irritable, and somewhat smug and bitter. The tone is argumentative and defensive, but also reflective and sensitive towards the end of the poem.


Analysis

"You think I like all this stupidness

gallivanting all night without skin

burning myself out like cane –fire

To frighten the foolish?"

The Ole Higue begins with an explosive and argumentative first line. Note that the diction (choice of words/language) is distinctly Caribbean, and reflective of her identity as an old, irritable woman. She expresses great dissatisfaction with what she does- however she is compelled to do so completely involuntarily. This alludes to an old wives’ tale told in the Caribbean of a hag who sheds her skin at night, turns into a ball of fire and scares superstitious people. She considers this act stupid, simply to 'frighten the foolish' superstitious who believe in the myth. Note the alliteration here in 'frighten the foolish.'


"And for what? A few drops of baby blood?"

She reasons that the whole act of setting herself on fire without skin and flying around is far more effort than it is worth. After all, a baby's body contains barely any blood, and for a mythical creature to compulsively go through this routine for such a negligible quantity is ludicrous to her- it is not rewarding at all.


"You think I wouldn’t rather

take my blood seasoned in fat

black-pudding, like everyone else?"

Instead of the bland blood of babies, the Ole Higue would much rather have her blood like everyone else does- well-seasoned and in black-pudding. This shows again that she in no way wants to do such an unrewarding task, but is forced to do this nonetheless.


"And don’t even talk ‘bout the pain of salt

And having to bend these old bones down

To count a thousand grains of rice!"

These lines are another allusion to the folklore of the Ole Higue. She must look out for salt, as it can injure or kill her (which makes sense since she has no skin). When salt is placed into the mortar with her skin in it, she can no longer put it on (does that sound familiar? There's a similar tale in Breath, Eyes, Memory). People may also obstruct her from reaching her infant victims by placing rice in front of their doors. Once an Ole Higue sees the rice she must count every grain before she can gain access. The intention is to keep her counting until the sun rises, making it impossible for her to enter the house and suck the baby’s blood. Thus, the Ole Higue is often obstructed in trying to drink the blood of babies adding to her seemingly endless misery.


"If only babies didn’t smell so nice!

And if I could only stop

Hearing the soft, soft call

Of that pure blood running in new veins,

Singing the sweet song of life

Tempting an old, dry-up woman who been

Holding her final note for years,

Afraid of the dying hum…"

The Ole Higue is incredibly attracted to baby blood, and she presents this in a sort of defence for killing them. The pure, untainted scent of babies' blood tempts her- she finds their aroma irresistible. The alliteration in "singing the sweet song of life" conveys the attractive quality of these infants' blood to the Ole Higue. The blood of the children represent new life- life which she has been trying to hold on to for years. She knows that the babies are at the beginning of the life cycle, and she is at the end; but she can alter the passage of this natural cycle. She prolongs her aged existence by bringing the babies’ lives to a premature end.



"Then again, if I didn’t fly and come

to that fresh pulse in the middle of the night,

how would you, mother,

name your ancient dread,"

Now, she identifies her own role in society. She also names to whom she speaks (when she says 'you')- she refers to the mothers of these newborn children. It seems that the Ole Higue is simply a mechanism by which these mothers may name the longstanding dread or fear of the possible death of their babies. Without her, she contends that these mothers would have no one to hold responsible for the death of their babies (even if it was just of natural causes).


"And who to blame

for the murder inside your head…?

Believe me –

As long as it have women giving birth

A poor ol’ higue like me can never dead."

She suggests something interesting through these cryptic lines- possibly that these mothers blame the Ole Higue for the death of their children even in the event that they had committed infanticide. However, it could also be that they need someone- like the Ole Higue- to direct their murderous rage for the death of their baby towards. Nonetheless, she knows that for as long as there are women giving birth to children, they will need a scapegoat to blame for the plight that befalls their children. Thus, the myth of her existence can never die.




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2 Comments


Ascian Abdool
Ascian Abdool
Oct 10, 2023

"This nocturnal being is also called a jumbie, soucouyant and backoo" This statement is misleading. An Ol' Higue is the guyanese version of a vampire, but unlike where a vampire turns into a bat, the ol' higue sheds their human skin on moonlit nights; and if it wishes to fly - turns into a ball of fire.

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Rosemarie Burke
Rosemarie Burke
Jan 27, 2021

interesting presentations

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