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The Chase

Written by Gerald Guiness for The San Juan Star on no date provided

The books reviewed in this column are usually available in island bookshops but occasionally something comes along that demands to be reviewed even though it’s as unavailable locally as Toad in the Hole (sausages baked in batter in case you’re wondering). John Figueroa’s The Chase is just such a book.

Figueroa was born in Jamaica where he was the first native-born professor of education at the University of the West Indies. In the early 1970s he came to work in Puerto Rico, teaching first at the UPR in Cayey (as a matter of fact he lived in Cidra in a house only 30 yards from where I am writing this review) and later at an Episcopal seminary at Guaynabo. Since then he has taught at Jos in Nigeria and at the Open University in England. England is his full-time home these days but he regularly returns to Puerto Rico to see friends and give lectures. Incidentally, once seen John Figueroa is not easily forgotten: his voluminous white beard would put any Santa Claus at Plaza Las Americas to shame.

The Chase, like a number of other interesting books to come out of the West Indies, is about Here and Elsewhere. Jamaican critic Edward Baugh has memorably defined Here as ‘the Caribbean, home, origins, the heart’s anchor’ and Elsewhere as, ‘all the foreign landscapes, physical, literary, cultural and social, which the questioning heart attempts.’ Now and then a writer from Here who shows too great an interest in Elsewhere is accused of being a traitor or even worse a ‘cosmopolitan’; abroad he may be criticized for handling themes and forms that really belong to Elsewhere poets. The rule in both cases seems to be: Stick to your own turf! To his eternal credit, John Figueroa has thumbed his nose at this ridiculous prescription and for 50 years has written poems about whatever has caught his fancy and in whatever style he has thought appropriate to his subject-matter.
His answer to fanatic locallists from Here is contained in the poem ‘Cosmopolitan Pig’ where he tells his critics to ‘top yu ‘tupidness,’ since

No sharp stroke shaping stone
No bend of metal or curve
Of well-kept hill
No plotted field of cane
Or wheat or rice… 
No Ife bronze
Or illuminated script
Is alien to me

a local variant of Horace’s Nihil alienum mihi humanum est (nothing human is alien to me). As for the carpers from Elsewhere, Figueroa here levels his sights at that ultra-distinguished American critic Helen Vendler who once ventured to criticize Derek Walcott’s pentameters. Figueroa’s reply to Vendler is appropriately written in a slashing, ironic Creole:

Roddy brodder, teacher Alix son,
Bwoy, you no hear wa de lady say?
Watch di pentameter ting, man.
Dat is white people play!
Wha de hell you read Homer -
A so him name? - fa!
Yu his from the horal tradition
And must deal wid calypso and reggae na!

So much for culture snobs, both of the localist Here, and genteel Elsewhere, varieties.
Figueroa’s most sustained treatment of the Here/Elsewhere themes, ‘From the Caribbean with Love,’ is perhaps too diffuse to be entirely successful, although lines like the following

We must know
While not denying the nurture
Of history and the permanent peace
Of a lawn cared for for a thousand years
We must know the span of now
(‘The span of now’: what a lovely phrase)

are surely spot on target. Chauvinist bravado satirized in ‘Columbus Lost, or All o’ Wi a Search,’ where the patriotic derision of ‘Him [i.e., Columbus] tink a India him come’ is neutralized by the wisdom of

We tink a India wi come
Or Africa
An’ all the while
A home wi, deh, a home
Yu neber lose yet, nuh?

For Figueroa, the racial or Afrocentric myths of origin are paltry compared with the great foundational myths of Christianity and the classical cultures of Greece and Rome.
Figueroa is in fact that rare being, a Christian humanist who is as much at home in the world of Sappho and Horace, both of whom he translates or ‘imitates’ in this book, as in the Roman Catholic world - which inspires some of his most beautiful poems. The Winged Victory of Saniothrace and the cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres are talismanic presences in his work, together with the great late Gothic church of Brou in Burgundy whose ‘endless geometry’ he often celebrates.
Other recurrent motifs are the changing seasons, women possessed or lost, dead friends and wasted lives (particularly poignant in ‘The Little Boy at Dawn’), getting old, and the Jamaica of his youth. (I particularly liked his ‘Christmas Breeze’ in this vein.) The range of Figueroa’s interests is wide and he finds a fine variety of voices to deal with those interests, only faltering perhaps when he slips into florid lyricism, as in ‘Oh When in Green Fields,’ or when in ‘Lacrymae Rerum’ he mimes the scatter-shot Pound of the ‘Cantos,’

Sunt
leave the latin alone
lacrymae
things are full of tears
for what cause
rerum

and its Eliotesque adjunct (for when Pound comes, can Eliot be far behind?) of ‘Four Quartets’:

or in the proposition meant
and not meant
accepted and refused.

A dangerously seductive influence has been that compound gentleman from the Midwest, Ezra Stearns Eliot Pound! In a poem like ‘This Tree My Time Keeper’ Figueroa comes into his own and its austerity and dignity, though with a touch of the West Indian seascape in its ‘bucking boat,’ are very moving. Moving, too, are Figueroa’s poems of failure and regret, like ‘Building Incomplete’ and ‘Birthday Poem.’ In the second of these he sums up his life on his 50th birthday:

Fifty years of not quite
gaining anything
(But weight
And a chance of understanding
What it means to
Be nearly third
Best, regularly).

Third best? A ‘certificate of merit’ instead of a gold, silver or bronze medal, as he says in the first stanza? The gold medal in the English-speaking Caribbean must of course go to Derek Walcott, but John Figueroa is certainly in the running for the silver. His poetry is as much a poetry of ‘the heart’s anchor’ as it is of ‘all the foreign landscapes… the questioning heart attempts.’ In other words, it is both a poetry of Here and Elsewhere, of the daily intimacies of Caribbean life and of wide horizons. It has the range, passion and skill of serious poetry. Forget Toad in the Hole (a terrible dish at the best of times), but make sure that you write off to Leeds, enclosing eight pounds ninety-five pence plus postage, for this book.

This is a review of The Chase

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