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View from Mount Diablo

Written by Fr. Gerard Leo McLaughlin SJ for The Sunday Observer (Jamaica) on no date provided

‘...He whistled for Johann
but Busta came instead.’

Ralph Thompson has authored his fresh, new and unexpected magnum opus, View from Mount Diablo, after pleasuring us for many years with sweet, romantic short and long verses of traditional poetry. His two volumes published some years ago by Peepal [Tree] Press remain thrilling testaments to his skill as a poet and storyteller. But with the publication of View from Mount Diablo, Thompson tilts windmills with the likes of ‘Beowulf’ in Chaucer’s time and Milton and his Paradise Lost.

This town boy from Kingston matches words and ambitions with the historico-poets of the centuries while telling his tale of little Jamaica in the second half of the 20th Century.

‘It had been a perilous wrenching birth, a desperate
foetal struggle. Amber Lee survived, numb
in body and soul and although another miracle
was possible she sealed forever the reliquary of her womb.’

Thompson’s tale tells the story of his own life, a bio-historical-poetic narrative that reveals him only a little bit and leaves the remainder to our imagination. Thompson recreates his own life (Adam Cole?) his father, South Camp Road (St Georges College?), Up Park Camp, German Uncle (Hans S...?) lawyer, Oxford (Fordham?) Mount Fuji (service in Japan?). ‘He would take Holy Orders, become a priest whose worthy hands would lift the host’ (unfulfilled vocation?). Though, perhaps not. (‘The pale pearl buds of her breast blossomed.’)

‘A pensive Adam lounged on his verandah, the awning
raised like an eyelid afraid to blink. The lights 
below seemed to be torches held up by savages 
ready to creep forward if the eyelid lowered.’
(Jacks Hill residence?)

In the middle of the writing he leaves behind any hints of his own biography and tells the story of the Jamaica contemporary to him (and to us): the story of Independence. From the West Indies Federation, Bustamante, Manley and Neville Ashenheim (...the Jew?), he makes a gigantic leap to ganja, heroine, cocaine, Sergeant Inspector (Adams?), drug dons (no names as yet?), decapitations in the hill country, rape on the grounds of the Immaculate Conception School (why ICHS?), government minister drinking with gangster friends and leaving with a fat envelope after breakfast, his boyhood friend Nathan shooting down his lieutenant in crime for his betrayal (C Massop?), prime ministers betraying their promise of Immunity to the Special Anti-Crime Task Force superintendent, the arson-atrocity of the Orange Lane Fire, the unseen machine gunnings of the Green Bay Massacre, and the unexplained salvation of the one who escaped the slaughter and found refuge in the skirts of a Laws Street donness.

One may question Thompson’s choice of historic themes for the seven decades of the past century: politics, crime, violence, rape, vengeance, drugs, corruption and child abuse. Why? Nothing beautiful happened beyond Chantal?

The poet struggled with the iambic pentameter, and he succeeds, but with an effort that brings to mind the work of the Irish Poet Seamus Heaney in his translation of the text of Beowulf:

‘There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.’

Thompson tells his story with strength and imagination. If some read into the political references biases of one or the other persuasion, so be it.

Finally, one is left with the difficult task of matching this epic with Mervyn Morris’ Holy Week or Edward Baugh’s new volume. On the other hand, there is no need to match. All of the above-mentioned works are fine; but this of Thompson’s is the newest finest.

This is a review of View from Mount Diablo

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