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Moving On

Written by Jack B. Moore for The Sunday Observer (Jamaica) on no date provided

Ralph Thompson took a course from me about twenty years go but never finished it. That’s all right, because I’ve been taking an extended course from him since that time that isn’t over yet either, thankfully.

What I’ve been studying for the past two decades through his poetry is Ralph Thompson, his growing up (I hope he never does, fully), his slant on life (very slant indeed sometimes, in the sense that Emily Dickinson meant when she admonished ‘tell all the truth, but tell it slant’), his play of mind (very playful, witty, tricky, penetrating), his splendid language (at once earthy, often colloquial, occasionally arranged in esoteric fantasies as filled with possibilities as three-dimensional chess), his worlds (the map of his existence seems to centre on Jamaica, an island about the size of Australia apparently, but extends to lesser domains such as a legendary United States, which in his cartography is not so fabulous as his homeland).

Thompson’s memory is clear and his sense of detail sharp, recollecting a colonial childhood - it could be his or some person’s he’s created. Poetically it really doesn’t matter which, since the history of the heart when well-told evokes its own reality. His book’s first poem explains part of the process of this remembering with a haunting image: ‘I am drifting back / looking for something I cannot find / so I return to search again, / memory trailing behind / like a cut anchor rope.’ But the cut rope he dangles was once attached to many things - and I think the secret of his beautiful search may be that looking for what the rope of memory was lashed to leads him to discover many places that are close to the one place - the ‘something’ - he’s looking for in the past, but are not the place, because that’s the place you can never quite return to after you’re no longer there. Still, the places (and the people in the places) he gets to, resound in his poems so that they live again in his recreation of them.

Thompson is a word-painter and a painter too, not strange for a word-painting poet - Dante Gabriel Rosetti and E E Cummings come to mind, though Thompson outdistances them in many-sidedness since he’s also a crackerjack businessman, like word-painting Wallace Stevens, who was, however, no painter. In painterly terms, Moving On offers impressions of Jamaica’s past and present, but etched sharply as engravings. ‘Mister Son’ in one page narrates a rich novel of one racist Big Daddy’s attempt to keep his family’s white blood pure, and its sad, sick legacy. ‘The Billiard Table’ muses enchantingly about a rainy day in paradise that almost but not quite (thank God!) innocent, groping children spend, before youth is spent and sweet, secret recesses get harder to find. And the language is spare and sharp as a spear, although I can’t say it always pins meaning down precisely.

Thompson likes to let his subjects twist about into different attitudes, permitting variant interpretations. Still, there’s no mistaking the hilarious picture of lusty, unappreciative Giles the goat in ‘Capricorn,’ butting his uncomprehending boy master from behind, ‘Giles’ head high snorting with lewd panache.’ Lewd panache! Wordsworth never recollected in tranquility a beast like that. But then Wordsworth, as Aldous Huxley pointed out years ago, never lived in the tropics - certainly never in Jamaica. The awkward sixteen-year old boy in Thompson’s remarkable, adolescent apologia pro vita sua (also his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Fool), ‘Goodbye Aristotle, So Long America,’ demonstrates a lewdness similar to Giles’s, but attended with no panache. That stylish behaviour is manifested however in Thompson’s wise telling of the human kid’s funny, touching experiences fresh from Jamaica; in the cold inferno of a Jesuit university in New York City.

This long, lively, witty poem is also a kind of cultural resume of a young man from the Caribbean provinces, a horny - physically and intellectually - young bozo who catches cold and lust easily and seems to find emission no more satisfying than remission in the big, Babylonian city. The poem is satiric in the tradition of Pound’s Mauberly verses, Auden’s longish satires, Pope, Dryden - there are antecedents, but none, I think, that plays so successfully on cross-cultural and trans-spiritual malaise. Here is the young man fantasising a saftig (read ‘juicy’) Heloise for the Abelard he Stephen Dedalus like imagines himself to be: ‘Step to the light, Heloise. / Be the first Eve that ravished Adam’s vision / as he stared a second time at her / through the subsiding rubble of the Fall. Felix Culpa. Felix Culpa... Let me paint you in mind. / For the shallow folds of shadow / on your breasts, a cool green - / emerald shading to lavender / as I have seen in pigeon feathers... your eyes are hazel, / the sea running through them, patient, / your lips pale, slightly parted, / brow frame with auburn hair, / burnt sienna one shadow side, / cut with cadmium orange in the light.’ That’s any spiritually yearning boy’s lust, but the dream the artist-to-be paints of Heloise is visualised in lively Jamaican colours.

Thompson’s horniness has the edge of urgency: kids want quickly what tempts them, be it sex or absolution. Passion for him is a more dangerous force, grows through contemplation, deepens, though miraculously the spirit it engenders is not thickened by its greater thoughtfulness. Thompson’s poems are passionate, whether they chronicle the last days of a Jamaican Don in ‘Death of a Don’, or sing ecstatically of the miracles - some bloody - that spring to mind ‘On Learning of a Daughter’s Late Pregnancy’.

The big subjects - life and death, birth and flesh decaying though alive one more day, flesh reduced to ashes blown back into the faces of live mourners - are imaged succinctly and passionately. I’d like to quote them all but will mention but one more, handled with the craft that turns a traditional theme into the artist’s fresh work, ‘The Garden’. How many gardens this poem brings to mind! Still, Thompson’s garden though recognisable is new, a jungle-place where ‘people perish daily yet the island / blooms. The blood of those who die / seems to enrich the soil and roses darken / to a warmer red, crotons / to a deeper gold.’ There are gardens like this all over the world, though I sense ‘Jamaica’ might be the name a symbolist would assign this troubled Eden. An apple - how unsurprisingly delightful! - has been smuggled into this garden ‘past the customs’. The poet asks ‘Should I take a bite?’

Readers, here is a book filled with the dangerous delights of fresh poetry. The poems are tasty, but they will make you (like that apple of old) think.

This is a review of Moving On

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