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Moving On

Written by Mervyn Morris for unpublished on no date provided

One of my favourite businessmen is Ralph. He is not only a businessman, of course, but also a painter and a poet and a member of the Breakfast Club. And if, like me, you often listen to that programme, you may have heard him clarifying legal and philosophical issues. If you didn’t know before, you will not be surprised to learn that he earned the degree of Doctor of Laws at Fordham University, and that, while working towards his doctorate, he taught Ethics at Fordham for three years. Particularly if you have his first collection of poems, The Denting of a Wave, some of you may also know that, after getting his degree, he served for two years as an officer in the US Air Force in Japan.

Having gone away to study in 1945, he came home to Jamaica in 1954. Dr Thompson got married; and, as the poems sometimes reveal, he knows he has been lucky in his marriage. Ralph and Dody have four children and, at last count, eight grandchildren.

Since 1989 Ralph has been the CEO at Seprod. His first job in Jamaica, back in 1954, was with Abe Issa. On the cover of Moving On, where his business responsibilities get equal billing with the work he really loves, he is described as a Jamaican who, as well as being a painter and a poet, is Senior Executive of one his country’s biggest companies. A note in his 1992 collection, The Denting of a Wave, had been more emphatic: 'Throughout his business career, first painting and then poetry have been the ordering passions in his life.'

On the Breakfast Club, Ralph carries the flag for the arts. He is not only the private sector employer sparring with his trade union friend on Wednesday mornings, he is a painter who does doodles people on the programme marvel at, he is the resident poet, a volunteer PR officer for the community of artists; a person who, having earned general respect as a practical man of business, uses his credit to promote the arts. He cares.

It is a pleasure for me to help launch Moving On. Ralph’s first collection, The Denting of a Wave, was well received - it was warmly praised by Louis Simpson and others. Many of the qualities admired in that first volume are present still in Moving On - especially the intelligence, the humour, the emotional openness, the careful concern for craft. The poems in this new book present a multi-faceted persona who travels 'the familiar road, / pain turning corners in [his] mind' (20); a Catholic exploring guilt, forgiveness, grace; a wandering Jamaican offering wry vignettes of prejudice, anecdotes of social disaster; a man who vividly recalls the youthful gropings of sexual discovery, perennial dramas of desire; a lover, husband, father, grandfather, having intimations of mortality; a painter with an eye for place and mood and movement, summoning '[t]hat time of evening when the sea / suddenly lowers its voice' (103).

The opening poem (11) announces one of the recurrent projects of the volume, the exploration of memory. It emphasizes process, the instability of 'Looking Back':

I am drifting back
looking for something I cannot find 
so I return to search again, 
memory trailing behind 
like a cut anchor rope.

The image of drift, placed right at the beginning, is carefully set against the title of the collection, Moving On. The title connects with most of the material in the volume. Moving on is necessary, after pain. Moving on is natural, as we develop. And ultimately, moving on is unavoidable, into death.

The poems have been grouped in three sections: 'Moving On', 'Crossings' and 'This New Light'. The first section mainly consists of poems of growing up, and culminates in a witty eighteen-part poem called 'Goodbye Aristotle, So Long America', about the learning experience of a white West Indian in a Catholic University in the USA. ('After each syllogistic spree / we celebrate with Q.E.D., / the logicians’ victory shout / that leaves the grace, the mystery out', 28.) In varying verse-forms, the poem brings to life a series of moral challenges and a gallery of persons, such as 'The Dean of Discipline, / lean as an exclamation mark' (25) and 'Major ‘Iron Balls’ O’Connor, S.J., / ex paratrooper, double Purple Heart' (36) who managed the university book store.

The second section begins with a series of poems concerned with faith or with religious persons, and moves on to poems concerned mainly with death ('A World War is any war / in which you die', 56) or with perception and memory: a persona who doesn’t remember Innsbruck nevertheless registers (59) what it may have been like:

There may even have been quaint streets, 
a balcony with a golden roof 
from which a girl in pigtails 
wearing a white embroidered blouse 
kept waving goodbye, 
growing smaller and smaller.

'This New Light', the final section, has the greatest range. It includes 'Death of a Don', a creole poem loosely modeled on Tennyson’s 'Morte D’Arthur'. There are poems that touch on inefficiency, pretentiousness, disloyalty, the fear of violence in the city. There are poems that foreground aging and the painter’s eye: 'All other lusts but looking have leached away' (104). Again there are poems about death, but they are counterbalanced with optimistic images of promising new life, such as in 'Epiphany'(78) or 'On Learning of a Daughter’s Late Pregnancy'.

One of my favourite poems is a gloomy one. In 'Vigil' (77) the visible world is scrupulously rendered, but within the rendering the persona’s fear is powerfully evoked.

VIGIL

At the end of a hard day 
dusk lurks in shadows 
on a verandah overlooking Kingston, 
an awning pulled up like the lid 
of an eye afraid to blink.

The lights below flicker 
like torches held by warriors 
waiting to reclaim lost territory,
ready to creep forward 
if the eyelid lowers.

Everything in front is flat, silent, 
the lip of the sea and the lip of the sky 
zip-locked at the horizon, 
the empty wharves
sticking out their tongues.

At your back there is a vast mountain, 
hunched like a vulture over the house, 
waiting for what will happen -
a prayer half uttered 
sliced in two by an avenging knife, 
what could be affirmed 
choked off at the very thought of it.

Congratulations to the poet and to Peepal Tree Press, his publishers. Moving On is an attractive and a rewarding collection. Let us avoid - to borrow from one of the poems - 'pretending that the stress of line and living / leaves little time for ritual thanksgiving' (91). Let us give thanks for Ralph, and Moving On.

This is a review of Moving On

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