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The Denting of a Wave

Written by Keith Silver for London Magazine on no date provided

Poet, painter and Director of one of Jamaica’s biggest companies, Ralph Thompson is an interesting polymath. Perhaps because of these other preoccupations his verse is marked by a complex amateurism. In his new collection, The Denting of a Wave, Thompson approaches his craft with a refreshing sense of novelty, its half-alien possibilities. This gusto can sometimes veer into what sounds like over-earnestness. In ‘Florida’, which describes the barrenness of that state’s affluent suburbs, he attempts an impressive, almost Martian image of ‘the abandoned / condom of a newspaper wrapped / in cellophane’. There is a shock element and an implied critique of antiseptic, sterilized America - but ultimately this cannot be supported because a wrapped newspaper doesn’t really look like a used condom. In the same poem we find Thompson’s exuberance spilling over into some rather immature sexual imagery - a ‘flaccid American flag’ is ‘shafted by a thin aluminium pole’. Perhaps Thompson, with a frustration we can share, is responding like a vandal who might spray-paint obscenities on those pale bungalow walls. The problem almost seems to be that he is not quite vulgar enough.

This intensity reaches a logical (or illogical) conclusion in poems which might almost have come out of one of the New Apocalypse anthologies, replete with heavy alliteration and lurid anatomical images. In a poem called ‘Death of a Honda Rider’, Thompson’s victim

...grinning his route
through black self-generated air
floats his teeth across the windscreen
of the car in hot pursuit
of someone he desires or despises
more than us...

There is a displeasing sense of exploitation about this slow motion. The white heat of description so warps the syntax that it becomes impossible to work out exactly who is chasing who. It’s hard to feel that we are really expected to care.

Curiously enough this collection also tackles these corporeal themes in a lighter, masterfully urbane way. ‘Refuge’, a dignified celebration of micturition, helps to define a genre which, no doubt, will eventually be anthologized for civilized entertainment in the smallest room. ‘Anniversary’ revives the ancient jousting metaphor with endearing panache as, outwearing the sex impulse, the combatants finally disarm themselves; ‘Our helmets will be hives for bees’. ‘Ars Longa’, drawing on Thompson’s love of painting, ameliorates the effects of physical pain with the deft use of colour and wonderful formal grace.

This is a review of The Denting of a Wave

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