Publication Details

Collett, A. "A slow reading of Olive Senior's hurricane story." 100 Atmospheres: Studies in Scale and Wonder. London: Open Humanities Press, 2019, 259-277. http://www.openhumanitiespress.org/books/titles/one-hundred-atmospheres/

Link to publisher version (URL)

Open Humanities Press


Over the course of the 20th century, recourse to satellite and radar technology, and the use of reconnaissance aircraft, has greatly assisted the tracking of tropical cyclones. In addition, data buoys are now employed throughout the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards to relay air and water temperature, wind speed, air pressure and wave conditions that enable more accurate prediction and monitoring of storm systems. But before the people of the Caribbean had recourse to modern instrumentation and communication, surviving a regular hurricane season was founded on sensitivity to environment, accumulated knowledge passed from one generation to the next by word of mouth; and what amounted to a rehearsed, even ritualised, set of practices. As Jamaican Canadian poet Olive Senior writes in 'Hurricane Story, 1903':

In those days storm warning came by
telegraph to Postmistress. Living in
the bush, Grandfather couldn't see her
rush to broadcast the news by posting
a black flag. But he was the seventh son
of the seventh son and could read signs
and interpret wonders so when the swallows
flew below the roof line, when the sky
took on a special peach glow, when flocks
of birds sailed west over the hill,
when clouds banked at the far side and the air
was still, he knew it was time to batten down.

The poem, like the time-honoured story, acts as an archive of knowledge and practice that might otherwise be lost; and like the oral tradition in which Senior's poetry is grounded, it registers and tussles with change. The atmosphere of the poem itself registers the poet-narrator's shift from childhood to adulthood, from tradition to modernity, from rural to urban, from small island view to big world view. This chapter will explore the often oppositional and difficult relationship between poetry and science, professional and amateur knowledges, indigenous and colonizing ways of reading the environment, different ways of sensing and responding to changes in atmosphere, and the question of personal responsibility in the face of depersonalised knowledge systems that emanate from outside a community.