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Moving On

Written by Thomas Reiter for The Caribbean Writer on no date provided

Who are West Indians and where do they belong? What kind of witness should West Indian poets bear, privately and communally? Answering such fundamental questions involves a standpoint with respect to convention, tradition, and authority, a matter of centering or decentering one’s art. Voices from the textbook and the street present their claims on the developing creative sensibility. In Moving On, the Jamaican poet Ralph Thompson owes allegiance predominantly to his colonial education, but finds room for his experiences of the radical (radix, rooted) lives people lead in their own language. Whether the locale is Jamaica, Europe, or America, Thompson examines and illuminates those values that have shaped him as a poet. For instance, he learns from his university experience in America that as an ‘alien observer’ he can devise strategies ‘to conform, / adjust, concur but not deform / the inner island of myself’ (‘Goodbye Aristotle, So Long America’). Paradoxically, keeping that island’s integrity in language means submitting to the English literary tradition, thereby accumulating resources of form and technique for his own subject matter, his individual talent. Note this remarkably crafted passage with which the poem ‘Third World’ opens:

High rise hotels, concrete shoulders thrown back
stand like soldiers self-consciously at attention
while round their boots this third world city sprawls.

How reconcile such rectangularity 
with the random chance from which it springs,
such stoic silence with the rhetoric of politicians

and bougainvillaea practising their purple patches?

One of the many strengths of Moving On is its intricate and intelligent organization, overall and within each of the three units: ‘Moving On,’ ‘Crossings,’ and ‘This New Light.’ The first poem in the book, ‘Looking Back,’ is a tuning fork to which texts resonate in their search for meaning through memory, that precious faculty that is forever ‘trailing behind / like a cut anchor rope.’ No doubt the poet concurs with Derek Walcott’s statement in his Nobel lecture that ‘all of the Antilles every island, is an effort of memory.’ The focus of the initial grouping is ‘Goodbye Aristotle, So Long America,’ an ambitious poem in eighteen sections. Topically wide-ranging and set in a variety of forms, the materials are variously political, theological, sexual, familial, and aesthetic. Moreover, those concerns appear in other poems in Moving On. Especially interesting are ‘Mister Son,’ a persona poem done in patois, and ‘Uncle Seymour,’ an illustration of Thompson’s gift for storytelling, for piecing history together.

‘Goodbye Aristotle, So Long America’ recounts Thompson’s education at a Jesuit university in the U.S., where he encounters a gallery of memorable characters. In tones often edged with irony and satire he gives us Brother Guilfoyle, medical school washout and active pederast; an unnamed veteran, a student, who in railing against Irish Catholics plants a question in the poet’s mind, one that will bear fruit on ‘inner island’ when he returns to his native island: ‘Why don’t they condemn and roar / with equal thunder at injustice, / pride, lies, prejudice, corruption?’ as they do against sins of the flesh; and finally ex-paratrooper Fr. ‘Iron Balls’ O’Connor, whose charity and humanity temper his Scholasticism while hearing Thompson’s confession ‘concupiscence can blunt free will, the pros and cons / obscured,’ which is the uncontested basis for the thesis - ‘a stiff prick has no conscience.’ The poem ends with the speaker on a train heading south, graduation over and his island life awaiting him. This is a crucial time in the young man’s coming of age, as he goes forth to live imaginatively in conflicting worlds. Symbolically, he stands ‘straddling cars, / the couplings battling for direction.’

The book’s middle grouping, ‘Crossings’, rings changes thematically on its title. There is a witty and vivid exchange of roles in ‘World’s Greatest Sinner to Confess to Pope,’ death as threshold in ‘Old Man Swimming,’ and species crossing as bestiality in ‘On the Way to Melrose Abbey, Scotland.’ This section’s focus is the ars poetica text ‘A View from Dingle Bay, Ireland,’ and its pattern of impasse and resolution appears throughout the collection. The speaker has crossed from one culture to another ‘on a prowl for rhyme and reason,’ and wonders how to get beyond the tourist’s habit of seeing unfamiliar places as ‘picture postcard views,’ whether of Ireland or Caribbean islands; that is, how to get beyond stereotype to singularity of vision. The answer lies in an awareness that character is formed by place, but dimensionally so, the angel and the devil in each of us. How to record that? In the poem’s Yeatsian closure Thompson attends to ‘the hammering / of an ancient goldsmith at his astringent craft,’ because only individualized artifice can counter the airbrushed 4x6s.

History, and therefore the burden of remembrance, comes to the fore in the third and final section. ‘The Garden’ asks a universal question: In a time of civil unrest, when innocent blood darkens the tropical blooms, what is it incumbent upon the creative person to do? Is it enough for that individual to stroll ‘in splendid isolation / ...finding consolation / in music, poetry and art?’ No easy answer emerges. ‘History Anyone?’ identifies the obstacles to true liberation for islanders. Generals, politicians, priests, and businessmen advance their self-serving visions. After all, suggests the poet, their predecessors collaborated in the slave trade, and now ‘a black scholar stooped with tenure, sighs / ""We have no history"".’ Those potent lines remind the reader of V. S. Naipaul’s assertion in The Middle Passage that history does not exist in the Caribbean because history has to do with high achievement and authentic creation within a fixed, definable culture. Down the decades all West Indian poets have had to respond to that claim in one way or another.

What is to be done? The title poem of section three suggests a pathway, however provisional, and the reader carries away from this impressive book a sense of Thompson’s deep engagement with speaking imaginative truths. Instead of yearning for the light as it fell on pastoral landscapes in colonial textbooks, the poet can acknowledge the cynical glare on ‘Kingston’s face,’ and using resources of the literary tradition create poetry whose pleasurable body of imagery, rhythm, and sonics exists in tension with nightmare reality. Kingston is a city where corpses in the funeral parlors

glow at night, nimbus of blue
acetylene burning the darkness under the roof,
lighting the windows - crunch of bone and sinew
as a foot curls into a cloven hoof.

To keep the secrets they are buried in their boots
but under the leather the light still glows, even
as coarse, wet hair begins to sprout
over the ankles and along the shin.

This is a review of Moving On

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