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The Chase

Written by Arnold R. Highfield for Caribbean Writer on no date provided

In his most recent volume, John Figueroa has crafted a book of verse drawn from the impressive span of his many years at the craft, a book that sets in relief his artistic interests and poetic talents.
In the first of four sections, ‘The Chase,’ Figueroa focuses on love, exploring the space between the desire for complete surrender, to the point of complete exposure, on the one hand: ‘To see you naked is to sight / An island of essential things’ [‘Insight’] and ‘I prefer you stripped like winter / Stripped to what the heart’s pump / Pushes through bone and flesh’ [‘Clarity’] and the need to separate oneself and retreat from love, from contact and perhaps from vulnerability, on the other. This latter mood echoes in many of the poems, but most strikingly in ‘The Ladies of Spain,’ ‘The Dance,’ ‘Where Venus Casts Her Thickets to the Sea,’ ‘Pastores,’ and ‘El Pecho del Amor.’ The image of separation in love is driven to a curious extreme in ‘Portrait of a Woman’ in which a young woman in the ‘throes’ of lovemaking tells her partner: ‘But if you try to kiss / Me I will scream.’

The theme of separation and distance extends into a number of the images of Jamaica and the Caribbean. Islands and island life are often viewed from afar or placed in sharp contrast with other places, other seas, other mountains. In ‘Christmas Breeze,’ Figueroa remembers: ‘This breeze in August cools a summer’s day / Here in England / In December in Jamaica / We would have called it cold…’ In the longer ‘Hartland/Heartland,’ he recalls in dreams a distant Jamaica through its trains and train stops, contrasting them to their counterparts in other cities, both in the West Indies and in Europe.

Two of the more powerful pieces in the book - ‘I Have a Dream, Columbus Lost,’ and ‘From The Caribbean with Love’ - take on the inevitable questions of ethnicity and identity. In the former, the poet cautions that West Indians should not ‘build up / Ourselves by showing / How foolish others are…’ (i.e., Columbus bashing). For him, identity is a simple matter. ‘We tink a India wi come / Or Africa / An’ all the while / A home wi deh, a home…’

The second of the two poems is a long introspective piece that peers into the Caribbean soul by means of the metaphor of the John Crow bird, a powerful symbol of destruction and death in Jamaican society - for Figueroa, the slave trade, slavery, racism and all that pits human beings against their fellows. Even though the slave traders ‘squat / Unbalanced / Atop the prize / The offal,’ humankind remains one. ‘We witness that no human mixture / Is miscegenation / Aliens for brothers / Mine for ours / Race for culture.’ He ends with the moving admonition: ‘But like all men must / Watch the enemy within / The certainty of ignorance / The larger claims of smallness / The desire to forget / Too little / Or to remember too much…’

In the second section, ‘Utopia,’ Figueroa charts a course through more introspective matters - love, nature, personal responses to places and the like, not always achieving the desired effect. While the imagery of the sea, trees, and nature may work well in one or two of the pieces, the effect becomes strained when extended over a dozen or so such poems.

The third section, ‘Ars Longer,’ centers more narrowly on art and the artist, using the Western tradition as a touchstone. There are sensitive pieces on topics as diverse as Chartres cathedral (‘an arrow at the sky’), ‘Winged Victory at Samothrace,’ and ‘Dvorak’s New World Symphony.’ Figueroa derives inspiration from such poets as Sappho, St. John of the Cross, Lorca and Horace. We can forgive him for taking obvious delight in the personal parallel, perhaps not altogether unwarranted, with Horace: ‘For he, a colonial, also colonised / An imperial tongue.’

The final section, ‘Vita Brevis,’ is indeed a closing, being pessimistic in both content and tone. Here the poet trains his vision on losses, closures, endings, deaths, funerals, tombs and graveyards. ‘The stars, the world and poems / Elude me relentlessly,’ sets the tone in ‘On Losing Grip.’ And ‘You and I have died / Before the final death’ in ‘Mauricio is Dead.’ The final poem in this section, ‘The Grave-Digger,’ pretty well sums things up: ‘A grave-digger drums / Rhythm endless of endless life / Transmuted into stillness - / The central sea of being -’

The poet returns consistently to familiar themes: to nature, especially to trees; the seasons, the seas and the like; to beauty and meaning in art, as exemplified in his numerous evocations of the exquisite medieval church at Brou in France; to the imminent end of things, in closures and death; and perhaps most significantly, to his belief in the universality and centrality of the individual to the things of this world. In this latter regard, he reminds us in ‘Cosmopolitan Pig’: ‘What is Barbados, or Peru / Provence or Rome / But places which Any Man / Can make their home?’ and at the end of the same poem: ‘No Ife bronze / Or illuminated script / Is alien to me.’

Figueroa offers us these poetic gifts from the summit of his career as an artist. If he has not significantly extended his territory as a consequence of the doing, he has not at the same time relinquished any of the high ground to which he has already laid just claim.

This is a review of The Chase

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