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The Chase

Written by Landeg White for Poetry Review on no date provided

By far the sharpest poem in this collection over four decades is ‘Problems of a Writer who does not Quite...’, an attack on Helen Vendler for patronizing Derek Walcott in the New York Review of Books:

No more of the loud sounding sea
Or the disjecta membra
Homer, Horace are not, are not for you and me
Colonials with too high a diction
instead of simple drug addiction.

Figueroa has been called ‘the most classical of Caribbean poets’, and this volume contains versions of Sophocles, Sappho, Horace, and the Psalms as well as imitations of St John of the Cross, Paul Valery and Charles Peguy, alongside poems addressed to Thomas Aquinas, Dvorak and Nelson Mandela, in settings which extend from Jamaica to Mexico, Paris to New York, Madrid to London, and the Mediterranean to Nigeria. Very much a man of the world, then, and a man of culture.
Fair enough! But what are we to make of lines like these, introducing ‘For and After Sappho’?

Sappho, the sea suggests
Aphrodite
You don’t mind
Do you?

The sea excites
Like strong soft woman
Excites and threatens

The sound of the sea
Makes me
Nervous

These are all too typical - rhythm slack, vocabulary null, mixing the coy with the pretentious and steering every subject round to sexual gratification. Figueroa’s varied landscapes all look remarkably similar, whether he’s observing ‘Breast-like hills’ in Nigeria, or ‘the rolling / Country of their breasts’ in Spain, or the ‘distant breasts of Earth’ in Jamaica, or the furrows in Germany which ‘imitate / Thy breasts’, or waves everywhere ‘seeking the contours of a willing beach’. There’s much, too, about thrusting, leaping, sowing and sap rising, all pointing to ‘the infinite / Receptivity of woman’. It’s not all like this. Ironically, given the assault on Vendler, he’s very good in creole: ‘Mek I advise yu boy / If yu trouble white people toy / Especially as yu win big prize an ting / Yu arse goin swing’. He needs space and is rather better with longer lines (such as ‘Epiphanies’) where the verbal and rhythmic weaknesses are less exposed than in the attenuated forms he seems to prefer. His translations are good, where there is a firm structure of thought and imagery in the original. Nostalgia, especially for his Jamaican childhood, together with moments of religious fervour, show him at his most convincing, and he has a touching line in self-deprecation such as ‘On Losing Grip’ (‘the world and poems / elude me relentlessly’), or ‘Birthday Poem’ which concludes that fifty years have taught him only ‘What it means to / Be nearly third / Best, regularly’. Before this, criticism is disarmed. There’s room for humility all round.

This is a review of The Chase

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