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The Denting of a Wave

Written by Phillis Gershator for The Caribbean Writer on no date provided

Ralph Thompson, Jamaican poet, businessman, and artist, has a gift for narrative. Even the arrangement of this poetry collection has its chronological, narrative aspects - starting off with a poem of childhood which documents and celebrates the building of a one room house. The poet at ten, allowed to use scraps, makes ‘the primal shape, only slightly / out of true but right enough for showing off,’ and then, sitting on a toolbox, contemplates ‘the career of carpenters.’

In the course of this book, the poems are sometimes ‘slightly out of true but right enough.’ When a poem does fall short, one wishes it didn’t, which attests to the strength of the book overall. The poet’s toolbox (free verse; a smattering of interior, end, and slant rhymes; irony; generally strong closures -some of them with punch and deflating what could have been heaviness or melodrama) is put to good use in tackling Birth, Death, God, Marriage, Children, Love, Sex, Art - in other words, all the big ones.

Some of the poems are descriptive and reflective. Some are mysterious, some obscure. Others reflect a charmingly self-deprecating, self-conscious humor. For example, in a poem about his daughter, ‘The Virgin Mary at Wellesley College,’ he ends with the lines:

her hazel eyes grew larger; 
then the laugh again
and I thought that she - 
undeniably touched - 
should be writing this poem.

And again in ‘Ablutions,’ when voyeuristic outdoor showers combine with sexual awakening even as a ‘silver rope of water whipped / its chill around my throat’:

Could what they say about
cold showers still be true if this poem
only tingles into life at the
remembered shock of early morning water.

The poet tells stories of his own life. He also uses, in other sorts of stories and meditations, literary references from the Bible, myth, Italian classics, other poets. His love poems are sharply observed, unsentimental, dissecting passion honestly. In a spin on the sweetness and light of the song ‘Jamaica Farewell,’ the poet speaks to more than the emotions of one friend’s leavetaking:

An indifferent Kingston
flushed itself into the harbour
silting up the ocean
with departures. The road
curled around the airport
like a question mark,
its meagre wrist of land
as fragile as your embracing hands.

The final poem, ‘The Other Island’ - a strong one about a homesick Jamaican airman in Japan - contains memorable images: ‘a German gun had stitched a row / of medals into her brother’s chest, / their red ribbons trickling down.’ Like the Japanese, ‘old women in Jamaica swept / the yard with tied-together branches, / green brooms that sprouted if you / planted them.’ A southern colonel says:

...When you explain
that miscegenation is illegal
they take the law into their own hands,
so to speak, cut off your prick
with one of their Samurai razors,
so quick you hardly feel the swipe.
But there you are sitting upright
on the tatami, legs spread, 
blood pulsing from an interior pipe -
and where do you tie the tourniquet, boy,
around your waist

And then, evoking a classic visual image as well, the poet, for he is that airman,

...stood at sunset on the brink
of bomb bruised Tokyo
watching a solitary fishing boat
cut from the river into the bay,
the fisherman standing in the stem
rolling a single oar from side
to side. Back home it would have been
a cotton tree canoe... 

Readers will not be disappointed. In fact, they will, undoubtedly, like this reviewer, feel enriched, fortunate to have encountered a poet of substance and craft.

This is a review of The Denting of a Wave

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