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The poem “Ol’Higue” is written by Mark McWatt. It is a poem about the Caribbean folk character of an Old Hag, who sheds her skin at night and drinks the blood of babies. She is the speaker of the poem. She gives a justification for her compulsive behavior and talks about how it is the mothers of the children who want a scapegoat for the cause of their babies’ deaths.
About the poet
Mark McWatt was born in 1947 in Guyana. He is Guyanese poet, author and professor of English. He writes mainly about the characters from Guyanese and Caribbean folklore. His famous works are “Ol’ Higue” and “A Man in the House”.
The poem is divided into three stanzas all varying in length.
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!
The poem starts with Ole Higue asking and telling that she does not like roaming around at night with skin and burning in a ball of fire. She thinks that it is foolish to do so. And the result of all this is just a few drops of baby blood. She says that she would rather take her blood with seasoned fat and black-pudding. She then talks about the painful salt and counting numerous grains of salt while bending her old back.
The poem starts off with the speaker asking rhetorical Ustinov that expresses her frustration. She expresses that she does not like “stupidness” like walking around all night without any skin and burning like a cane. This is a reference to Caribbean folklore which says that the Ole Higue removes her skin at night and turns into a ball of fire. All of this the speaker says is done to frighten the foolish. She does not want to do it because her reward is just a few drops of baby blood which are not worth all the effort. She would rather like to live like a normal person and have her food seasoned in fat and with black-pudding. The next lines are another reference to the folklore which talks about how salt is painful to the Ole Higue and can burn her skin, this is what people use to protect themselves against her. Another way to keep her away is to throw grains of rice in front of her. According to the folklore, Ole Higue has to compulsorily count every grain of rice in front of her before she can move forward. To this the speaker replies by saying how she does not want to do it because her bones are old and counting the rice grains makes her back hurt.
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 speaker then says that the smell emitted by babies is so tempting that she can not hold herself back. And she can not help but hear the sound of the blood running in the baby’s new veins which tempts her old, writhing body that is near death.
The Ole Higue talks about how irresistible the smell of the blood of babies is to her. It tempts her to drink their blood and she can not stop herself. She also talks about how she can hear the sound of the blood pumping in the veins of the babies and it is so sweet that she is unable to hold herself back. She says this as a defense against her actions. The sound is like the song of life to her. She knows that babies symbolize the beginning of the cycle of life and she is at the end. She does not want to die yet and thus she saves herself by killing the babies.
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.
The speaker now talks about her role in society and how if she didn’t roam around in the night and drink the blood of babies, the mothers would have no one to blame for the death of their children, even if they die of natural causes. She even says that as long as women give birth and the babies die, the story of Ole Higue will live on.
In these lines, Ole Higue is pondering upon her role in the society. She says that she has to fly around every night and suck on the fresh blood of babies because the mothers use her as a scapegoat. Even when the child dies of natural causes, the mother wants someone to put the blame on. Ole Higue functions as the reason. In the next few lines, “who to blame/ for the murder inside…” Ole Higue becomes cryptic and mentions that the mothers blame her even when they voluntarily commit infanticides. That is why she knows that as long as women continue to give birth and their babies dies, the myth of Ole Higue will continue on.