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Book review - The poems of Ralph Thompson
published: Sunday | September 3, 2006

Mary Hanna

TITLES:The denting of a wave. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 1992. 85 pages.

Moving On. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 1998. 104 pages.

View from Mount Diablo. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2003. 56 pages.

Reviewed by: Mary Hanna

We who write poems know

How grudgingly our true emotions flow,

Pretending that the stress of line and living

Leaves little time for ritual thanksgiving.


Honest to the bone, Ralph Thompson's poetry records with panache and precision his memories of growing up in Jamaica and at a Jesuit university in the United States, and precious moments from his adult life.

Born in 1928, Thompson's gusto for life and keen recall of youthful sexual yearnings spin vivid tales that underscore with energy the other more philosophical poems of maturity in his collections.

Thompson's generous and courageous offerings are often grounded in narrative, and with his third book of poetry, View from Mount Diablo, he makes the imaginative leap of composing an entire book of a single narrative, a 'novel in verse'.

Of this highly accomplished poet, Louis Simpson says he writes 'first rate poetry - intelligent and - with a sense of humour'. Other reviewers have rightly praised his warmth, exact observation, craft and vivid storytelling.

Thompson brings to Caribbean poetry a solid grounding in the Euro-American tradition. He pays homage to the Bible, Homer, Dante, Cavafy, William Carlos Williams, and T.S. Eliot among others, as well as to poets close to home, like Derek Walcott. His first book echoes with these voices and yet allows a strong and sonorous beat of ironies and his deeply-felt love for natural surroundings to ring through. His confidence increases with each volume and his poetic skills are sharpened. View from Mount Diablo won the 2001 Jamaica National Literary Award; Louis Simpson praised it as 'a remarkable achievement - something new.'

In The denting of a wave, Thompson does not shy away from memories of a modest beginning, nor pull any punches when recording youthful and adult observations on his experience of life as a white West Indian. In 'Ablutions', the poem that opens his first collection, he speaks forthrightly about the beginning of his days as a schoolboy:

A pipe jutted like a gibbet from

the outside kitchen wall above a shallow

cistern and when in the cool of early schoolboy

mornings its silver rope of water whipped

its chill around my throat, choking off

the involuntary scream, I wondered

why poverty ordained such ritual

ablutions and, anointing crotch with red

carbolic soap, cherished a hope the girl

next door would peek around the corner,

pretending indignation.

Thompson attended St. George's College and Fordham Law School in New York. He is a member of the New York Bar. He served in Japan during the Korean conflict and returned to Jamaica to undertake a career in business. He has been the CEO of two major companies quoted on the Jamaica Stock Exchange, as well as being a poet and a painter. Thompson's keen mind and painter's eye and training have stood him in good stead as he approaches the page. His poems are firmly rooted in Caribbean detail but are universal in their concerns, and his sense of composition is always intensely complete. In 'Time and Tide' he writes:

Between the V of the hull

and the XXXs of the verandahed villas

lies the blue sea talking to itself

in ultramarine tautologies of deep debate,

each syllable a wave

foaming into gibberish upon the reef.

And in 'Icarus at Cape Canaveral', he rewrites the ancient myth with sharp pungencies of smell and touch, concluding:

But do not pray to me for I

am fiction. Pray rather

that when your rockets fall

there will be souvenirs more solemn

than the denting of a wave.

In an age that forfeits myth

for science, souvenirs are treasured

more than icons. Without a piece

of metal on the shelf to fondle

you are condemned like me to poems.

Moving On recreates moments of change, loss and epiphany. Thompson records with rich imagery and observation the narrative of his prewar Jamaican childhood - sexual discovery under the billiard table and adventures with a goat saved from dissection in the school biology lab:

Tethered now, I squat

to pet him and he attacks

my knee, humping it, the air

heavy with the semen salt of goat.

Thompson's long sequence 'Goodbye Aristotle, So Long America' is a wonderful recounting of the years of study at a Jesuit university in America and a tour de force of schoolboy memoirs; it is my favourite section in this second collection.

Drawing on many forms in the course of this narrative, Thompson experiments with the quatrain of semi-rhymes that he later adopts for View from Mount Diablo. 'Goodbye Aristotle' is in the opening section of this second collection of poems, which contains also poems of travels (under the heading 'Crossings') and poems of the violent aspects of Jamaican life that reappear in his third book (under 'This New Light'). In 'Goodbye Aristotle', only one of the schoolboy's challenges is avoiding 'The Dean of Discipline,/ lean as an exclamation mark' who 'prowls the corridors at night,/ in sneakers' with a red shawl 'borrowed from Dracula'. There are more frightening challenges for the Jamaican boy, for:

When the vet's wound, inside and out,

Acts up, he drinks and lectures me.

'Go back to your island. Don't let

these Irish Catholics f you up.'

Some priests attempt sexual intimacies, but some are good mentors, and among his peers are bullies like Spike and friends like Lem:

Spike calls my friend Lem

a dumb nigger in my hearing. His snarling

notwithstanding we manage to toss him

in the lake but he can't swim

so we have to haul him out again.

Invited to visit Lem's family in Brooklyn, the poet finds warm welcome and takes comfort and strength from their kindness and the intimacy of remembering home. In and around these vignettes are the sexual urges that drive the poet to distraction: 'See, God, what you did to Abelard, /what you do to me.'

Rounding out this collection are poems of family life and mature love. They reflect on the experience of ageing and also on what sustains human relationships through time. Jamaica is present as a place of great natural beauty, but also of ambivalence - a locus of love and fear. In Moving On, poems that present in creole benefit from being read aloud. Thompson has said that he hears the Creole in his mind and writes a simple version on the page. 'Death of a Don' reappears in View from Mount Diablo as does the nervy, ironic conclusion to 'This New Light':

In the city's bursting funeral parlours

the corpses glow at night, nimbus of blue

acetylene burning the darkness under the roof,

lighting the windows...crunch of bone and sinew

as a foot curls into a cloven hoof.

To keep the secret they are buried in their boots

but under the leather the light still glows, even

as coarse, wet hair begins to sprout

over the ankles and along the shin.

In View from Mount Diablo, Adam Cole, a white Jamaican boy, becomes a crusading journalist in the challenging days following Independence. He exposes the hidden godfathers of crime - squint-eyed Nellie Simpson, once his Nanny and now a political enforcer, and stuttering Nathan, once his boyhood companion as gardener and groom, now a drug baron. The complicated connection of the personal and political is minutely explored, as class and racial privilege and the resentments they provoke are illuminated.

Thompson weaves a fascinating narrative of the transformation of Jamaica from a colonial society to a post-colonial nation replete with political corruption, armed gangs, drug wars, and an avenging police and army. He peoples it with real and fictive characters like Bustamante, Tony Blake, aka 'The Frog', Blaka, an informer, Spenser, a white plantation owner, and a suicidal police officer.

The poetry is sustained in strong, imaginative and bold quatrains. It describes the terror of rape and the destruction of the old women in the fire at the almshouse, and looks with a compassionate eye on the redemptive powers of personal relationships where there is love. When Nathan is sent to kill the journalist, he instead offers him this option:

He jammed the gun in his waist, began to poke

In Adam's desk where his rosary was buried in a cup

with keys and paper clips. 'S...s...swear on this cross

you will resign from the Trib tomorrow, leave Jamaica,

never reveal information about my business.

Is not so drug man usually deal with danger

but I love you, man, will respect your promise. Don't

make me

have to shoot you, man.' His eyes blazed.

'Friendship really hard...'

Ralph Thompson has given public service under both political administrations in Jamaica and was awarded the C.D. in the Jamaican National Honours of 1988. He is a member of the National Council on Education, the Early Childhood Commission and the Archbishop's Diocesan Committee on Education.

He is an ardent advocate for education reform. As a working poet and luminous artist, he has written the words that underscore his dedication to his art. From 'Silences' (Moving On):

'When you are old and your soul is shivering,

the last stitch of its dream unraveling,

pull this poem like a shawl

around your nakedness.' Only

the rags of words are left to warm

the marrow, once more the word made flesh.

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