Apologies to the 'penis poet'
Carolyn Cooper, Contributor
It would be most unfortunate if, at this late stage of his distinguished career, Mr Ralph Thompson were to be reduced to the ignoble stature of 'penis poet'. I could barely forgive myself for any role I might be perceived to have played in bringing such dishonour on the head of a fine poet.
All the same, I'm rather surprised to see that Ralph is carefully distancing himself from the delightfully pungent humour of the earthy poem he performed last month on the open mic at the Calabash International Literary Festival. In a somewhat petulant letter to the editor, published in The Gleaner on Monday, June 18, 2012, Ralph grimly insisted that I had failed to grasp the depth, if not the length, of his penile poem.
The provocative headline of the letter was 'The full Monty on my 'penis' poem'. I suspect that Ralph didn't have a thing to do with that stripteaser of a headline; it's far too suggestive. A mischievous editor appears to have been having a little fun at the poet's expense. And the wicked allusion to 'the full Monty' also implies that I didn't quite have a handle on the poet's meaty meaning.
The letter itself elaborates the point: "In two of her recent columns, Carolyn Cooper, in commenting on a poem I read at Calabash, has used my name as a springboard for some of her general opinions about sexuality. This has been done in good fun, I am sure, but has inadvertently served to trivialise an otherwise serious poem.
"In the interest of civility and protection of my reputation, I would be grateful if you would publish the poem in its entirety so that readers can judge for themselves the theological and poetic integrity of the work."
Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa! 'Mi sari, mi sari, mi sari, mi sari, sari!' I've exposed the poet's impeccable reputation to the risk of infectious laughter by drawing undue attention to the opening line: "At 84, I have outlived my penis." The poet intended to discharge theology, not sexology. Like the Old Testament Book of Job, the poem raises a deep question: Why do the righteous suffer?
Or, more precisely in this instance, why does the righteous man suffer from sexual impotence? The answer is that one must just learn how to make a deal with God and accept His will, however unpleasant the circumstances. Memory of the itch and scratch of sexual ecstasy will persist. Writing poetry becomes an act of divine sublimation.
At core, Ralph Thompson's poem is about the perversely pleasurable tension between sexual desire and sexual frustration. For ease of reference, here's the 'non-penis' poem in its entirety:
It's a deal
"Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be."
At 84, I have outlived my penis
and now by His grace there is a peace of sorts.
But how to cope with memory, its walls scrawled
with graffiti of recall, where itch
still lingers dreaming ecstasies of scratch.
But I have learned from Job to bargain with the Lord -
a deal that He, post mortem, will contra
the excruciations of my journey
against the penances assigned to sin,
the divine books balanced.
Before Alzheimer's dirty sleeve erases all,
quick, write a poem.
A cheap trick?
Having dutifully made 'a peace of sorts' with Ralph, I still have lingering questions about the thrust of that potent opening line. By focusing on the penis, I seem to have cut short the full extent of the poet's weighty philosophical meditation. The 'poetic integrity of the work' has, apparently, been adulterated.
Ralph would have us believe that the alleged death of the penis wasn't just a cheap trick to hook the reader/audience. It was actually meant to signify the mysterious way in which God moves to perform his wonders. Unfortunately, resuscitating a dead penis does not seem to be high on the list of divine priorities.
Fair is fair. I could much more easily accept Ralph's ponderous theological argument with great civility if the opening line of the poem had been: "At 84, I have outlived my knees." Of course, that decidedly unsexy line would have drawn no irreverent laughter. Instead, the mature audience at Calabash would have nodded sympathetically. And the poet would have seemed rather lame.
Knee failure is a familiar ailment for many of us who are not quite 84. And well-oiled knees are a pleasure akin to sex that only those who are suffering from arthritis would understand. Not to mention the delicate fact that certain sexual positions are off-limits to the weak-kneed.
Knee versus penis: no contest. I just don't understand why Ralph can't concede that a poet who could deliver such a penetrating line with a straight face is a cut above the rest. This is not an impotent man whose identity is defined by half a foot, more or less, of dangling flesh.
In any case, sex is a theological issue. It's not a trivial matter. Some theologians argue that the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was sex. That's why Adam and Eve realised that they were naked only after eating it. Not each other, of course.
I think Ralph got a little weak-kneed after reading my columns and decided that he had to take a stand against slackness, however feeble. But he's done himself an injustice. In his haste to demonstrate "the theological and poetic integrity of the work", he has deflated the humour that buoyed up a rather depressing subject.
Ralph frames his own poem with a famous quotation from Robert Browning's 'Rabbi Ben Ezra', a very long and very mournful reflection on ageing. Browning wrote the poem at the age of 52, three years after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who had Jamaican roots. I much prefer Ralph's version. The dead penis made his poem spring to life: the real deal.
Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Visit her bilingual blog at http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com/. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.