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View from Mount Diablo

Written by Wayne Brown for Unpublished on no date provided

Madame Chairperson, ladies and gentlemen: 

Back in the early 1930s, when Ralph Thompson here was just a toddler, there was an American poet called Wallace Stevens who, wonder of wonders, was also the CEO of a major life insurance company. Stevens tried to keep the two things, his job and his vocation, quite separate; and since America is a big country, and since there was no cable, nor even television, in those days, he managed to do so, to the point that most of the people he worked with didn’t even know Wallace Stevens wrote poetry. So when in due course he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and he went to Stockholm to receive it, he began his acceptance speech by saying: ‘If only the boys in the office could see me now!’

Well, Jamaica is a lot smaller than the United States, and one assumes that the boys in Ralph Thompson’s office knew all along that their CEO wrote poetry. But it would be surprising, and gratifying, if many of them appreciated the growing distinction with which their boss was deploying words.

But I’ll tell you. Also back in the 30s, when the American publishing firm Scribners had just about finished preparing Hemingway’s bullfighting book, Death in the Afternoon, for publication, Hemingway’s editor, Max Perkins, wrote to him. ‘Everything seems now to be right with the book,’ Perkins wrote. ‘And you will see, when we send you the page proofs, what we have done about the words.’

Well, I was ill at one point last year, and Ralph came to see me and asked if there was anything he could do; and I told him, ‘Send me a poem’. Now, I didn’t mean, what you’re thinking: ‘Send me a poem to read’ - I was in no shape to read anything at the time. What I meant was that, as editor of the Observer Arts Magazine, I often have to ‘do something about the words’ of contributors. But I have never had to do anything about Ralph Thompson’s words. And so, in the state I was in then, I knew I could pass on to the Observer, sight unseen, any poem of Ralph’s that he might send me. No writer is born with such technical assurance, of course; it is the mark of a poet who has worked selflessly and long at his craft. And in that sense, the real progenitors of View from Mount Diablo, which we’re here this morning to launch, were Ralph’s first two collections, The Denting of a Wave, 1992, and Moving On, 1998, both also published by Peepal Tree Press. In fact, if as a reader, you want a warm-up before tackling the book-length ‘Mount Diablo’, I would recommend that you go back and read the rich, and in places quite raunchy, 18-pg poem, ‘Goodbye Aristotle, so long, America’, in Ralph’s last collection, Moving On.

That painstakingly acquired technical assurance is the bedrock upon which the poet has erected the present ambitious and unique narrative poem, this story-in-verse of modern Jamaica: a story that coincides pretty much, in chronological terms, with Ralph Thompson’s own life and times. Now, of all the English-speaking Caribbean territories, Jamaica has been most richly blessed with poets. To call names like Denis Scott and Tony McNeill, Eddie Baugh and Mervyn Morris, Lorna Goodison and Andrew Miller and Delores Gauntlett and several others - including, most recently, Safiya Sinclair, an extraordinary 18-year-old from Mobay who reads dictionaries for pleasure - to call such names is to embark upon a roll call that’s the poetic equivalent of Jamaica’s record in the Penn relays. Why this should be, I don’t know. Perhaps it has something to do with your mountains, or your music, or the fact that Jamaica is still a predominantly rural and religion-enthralled society. Yet no Jamaican poet, to my knowledge, has attempted to date, a poem of the scope of View from Mount Diablo.

When, a little while from now, you each buy your copies of this book - and I say copies because Christmas is coming, and this is a book that, having arrived here from England, where it was published, deserves to go right back out, to the North American and European diasporas - you’ll see where on the back cover Louis Simpson, the Jamaican-American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, declares of Mount Diablo that ‘its knowledge of the island, the entwining of private lives and politics, lifts Jamaican poetry to a level that has not been attempted before.’

You’ll forgive me for being parochial, but, quite apart from the quality of the poetry, what impresses me about such an intertwining of this poet’s private life and his country’s public one is that Ralph Thompson is a white, or at least a white-seeming, Jamaican. (I actually neither know nor care which.) And the fact that reading this poem it doesn’t seem to matter - that, in a race-ridden society like Jamaica’s, the race of the author of Mount Diablo doesn’t seem to matter - is to me like a badge of moral and artistic seriousness on Thompson’s part. Way back in the hinterland of View from Mount Diablo is an unstated weltaanschaung that says, ‘This is my country, and I claim the right to all of it, all of its beauty and all of its pain - no less than anybody else from here.’ Coming from the background Ralph Thompson comes from, that seems to me the attitude of a man of uncommon character; and - quite apart from the poetry - it is one reason why I recommend this book to you. If there’s one quality Ralph Thompson shares with VS Naipaul, it’s that, in his very person, he cannot help but contradict the pessimism to which he gives such persuasive voice.
But make no mistake. ‘Goodbye Aristotle, so long, America,’ ends with Thompson describing himself, on a train journey, as ‘sway[ing] to the message of the wheels,/ A splurge of hope, riding the steel conviction of the rails.’ But four years later, considering this island now, the poet is irrefrangibly pessimistic. Indeed, the prologue of View from Mount Diablo explicitly announces its slant:

‘The light that I have so long loved turns 
its gaze grudgingly from the old, romantic view 
of islands, from the stubbled silver sheen of mountains 
guarding valleys waking from their sleep, dew 
overflowing the green uplifted chalice of a leaf...’

The image is full of nostalgia: ‘...the green, uplifted chalice of a leaf’ virtually sings with the poignancy of a lost sacredness. And because, a few lines on, the sun is described as, ‘a complacent prison warder twisting a thumbprint into Kingston’s face,’ we are justified in hearing echoes - and I think they are conscious echoes - of Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’, with its journey from innocence to experience, from the child ‘trailing clouds of glory’ to those ‘shades of the prison-house’ which ‘close upon the growing boy’.

Next, in Ralph Thompson’s poem, the same Caribbean sun is described as predatory and quite mindless: ‘a hawk circling a laden feeding tree, pure scrutiny without a trace of insight...’
But perhaps you see where I’m coming from. If not, you will when I remind you of the corresponding images in Derek Walcott’s poem, ‘Preparing for Exile’: ‘Why does the moon increase into an arc-lamp/ and the inkstain on my hand prepare to press thumb-downward/ before a shrugging sergeant’?’ Dr Thompson can correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me we’re supposed to hear the same imagery of spiritual exile and civic malaise behind his own line likening the sun to ‘a complacent prison warder twisting a thumbprint into Kingston’s face’. And here’s the question. How can you produce such a brilliant and resonant metaphor for despair without eliciting the opposite emotion, admiration, in the heart and mind of the reader? And that is the unspoken dialectic that runs through this remarkable book-length poem. At every point, to the apparent failure and corruption of the society, is implicitly counterpoised the artistic mastery and moral outrage of its spokesman! Because, as the American critic Lionel Trifling once observed: ‘The poet may be used as a barometer, but let us not forget he is also part of the weather!’ And that is the curious and delightful paradox at the heart of View from Mount Diablo: that the calibre of its poetry is always nudging upwards the barometric readings of its civic investigations. View from Mount Diablo ranges over Jamaica’s sociopolitical history in the decades prior to, and moreso since, self-government. Its many and various characters, ranging from Bustamante and lawyers to a maid-turned party worker and a gardener-turned-cocaine don, are seen through the eyes of an Oxford-educated newspaper reporter, Adam Cole, whose boyhood and youth, with their idealist young dreams and rather more furtive carnal initiations - and then whose early manhood, education abroad, and young family-man years - neatly match the glory days of these West Indian islands’ run-up to Federation and independence. Thompson gives no dates, of course; and we are not supposed to notice that he secretly concertinas time - so that, for example, the computer age occurs contemporaneously with the sociopolitical traumas of the seventies. But it’s clear that when the poem at its midpoint - in the sixth of its twelve chapters - changes - changes mood, tone, arena, everything - it’s clear that the independence decade of the sixties has been reached.

The deus ex machina behind this pivoting moment is the rape of Adam Cole’s schoolgirl daughter, Chantal (the name of course means ‘Song’) on the grounds of her school, which is of course - for you wouldn’t expect Ralph Thompson to miss such an opportunity for irony - Immaculate Conception. The departure of Adam’s wife - who is Chinese, and whom therefore the poet is pleased to call Amber - the departure of Amber with their daughter, Chantal, for Canada, marks the end of Adam Cole’s prospects for happiness (the end too, of course, in poetic terms, of the possibility of lyricism, of song) and the real beginning of his civic crusade as a reporter. Quote:

‘Now when he turned his new computer on 
Chantal’s face floated from nowhere to fill 
the amnesia of the screen, the presence of her absence haunting
his conscience, reinforcing the final defiance of his will.

As the social fabric of the island shredded, the scourge 
of words spurred Adam on. He ventured 
where no reporter had dared to go before, 
lurking in shadows, turning over rocks.’

Now, in these parts a crusading journalist may survive his revelations of political incompetence or even corruption. But he is less likely to survive his investigations of those running the cocaine trade; and in the second half of View from Mount Diablo, Ralph Thompson’s increasingly pessimistic diagnosis of contemporary Jamaica culminates in the murder of Adam Cole by Nathan, Adam’s family’s ex-gardener and his childhood companion, now turned cocaine don.
In fact, for old times’ sake, Nathan offers Adam his life in exchange for the latter’s migration and lifelong silence. But Florida holds no appeal for Adam Cole - Florida which, quote, ‘on a monitor of the earth... would be flat as the baseline of an exhausted heart.’ Yet, in having the reporter essay instead a hopeless attempt to jump Nathan, Thompson suggests an indecipherably complex moral motivation.

Adam remains to the end the professional journalist, refusing to betray his civic responsibility and acquiesce in the culture of Unmeaning which he has seen all around him. But he has also - we are led to feel - been made so weary in his soul, first as a father by the rape and loss of his daughter Chantal, and then, as a citizen, by a despairing vision of contemporary Jamaica as a version of Matthew Arnold’s ‘darkling plain,/ swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight/ where ignorant armies clash by night’, that his doomed lunge at Nathan also seems the expression of a death wish.

The final chapter of View from Mount Diablo is a tour de force. In it, several figures from Adam’s past and childhood return. In addition to Nathan, there is a ‘phantom Chantal’, ‘a schoolgirl with almond eyes’ who (in what turns out to be the last hour of Adam’s life) glances at him as she crosses in front of his car at a traffic light. And there is Nellie, whom the reader first met in Chapter One, when as Adam’s family’s domestic helper she would naughtily play with the child’s private parts while bathing him, but who has long since ‘exchanged sex for power’, become a Party worker, refused (like Adam) to knuckle under to the cartel, and in consequence met a violent end. Finally there is Blaka, an ex-Party gunman who, having ‘found religion’, warns Adam that the cartel has taken out a contract on his life - a warning for which he is brutally murdered as an informer and his corpse left on Mount Diablo, the ‘Devil’s mountain’ which (the poet implies) Jamaica as a whole has become.

And yet it was St Augustine who, famously, called poetry itself ‘the devil’s wine’. (Just look at the twist that reference gives to the whole weight of the title of the poem!) And Ralph Thompson sustains the ambiguity of his enterprise to the end. View from Mount Diablo ends with a reprise on the last line of the first chapter, a reprise which also functions as a reprieve, taking the dying Adam back to a remembered sensation of childhood innocence: ‘...a sweet breeze blowing steady from the sea.’

In other words, this too will pass. But the poetry of earth is never dead. Ladies and gentlemen, in this short synopsis I could not hope to do more than gesture in the direction of the many pleasures awaiting the reader of View from Mount Diablo. But like any genuinely major work of literature, this book comprises not only a moveable feast but a repeatable feast. You can read View from Mount Diablo time and again: each time you will find some new excellence, some subtler pun or literary resonance, some further nuance of joy or pity, secreted in this or that metaphor or simile, to delight or bemuse or - in the lingo of today’s young people - to ‘centre’ you. And all the time, reading View from Mount Diablo, you will feel the essence of Jamaica - Jamaica past and present, both - coming and coming at you.

I feel privileged to have been invited to partake in its launch. And, however pessimistic the poem’s vision, it seems to me mysteriously appropriate that its launch should be taking place at Christmas.

This is a review of View from Mount Diablo

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