February 4, 2009

In My Own Words: Ralph C. Thompson

Ralph ThompsonOn one of his visits to Jamaica Derek Walcott said to me, “Thompson, every time I come to Jamaica I feel your anger about the state of politics in Jamaica and the corruption contaminating the society. Why don’t you reflect this indignation in your next collection.” And that is how I came to write View From Mount Diablo which won the 2001 Jamaican National Literary Award.

Two facts to bear in mind: I am white and I am 80 years old. the first precludes me from using Emancipation or any other black triumph as a poetic epiphany; the second allows me to focus, more or less, on an 80 year span of Jamaican history to which I can be a personal witness. No wonder, then, that View, in Wayne Brown’s words is a “deeply pessimistic work,” but he also points out that in the poetic dialectic this is a final testament of my abiding love for my country.

The first step was to recognize that the anger which Walcott recognized needed to be regulated by a relatively strict poetic form or it would turn into a scream. I choose a single- rhymed, loosely heroic quatrain:

…..the corpses glow at night, a nimbus of blue

acetylene burning the darkness under the roof,

lighting up the windows – crunch of bone and sinew

as a foot curls slowly into a cloven hoof.

To keep the awful secret, they are buried in their boots

But under the leather the light still glows, even

As coarse, animal hair begins to bristle

Around the ankles, to sprout along the shins.

The verse novel records Jamaica’s transformation from a colonial society to a post-colonial nation which, in throwing out the baby with the bath water, lost its moral centre.

For aesthetic reasons I collapsed chronology and created a mix of real and imagined characters through which the narrative is threaded. Although corruption has historically been enshrined in both political parties, the times of which I was a personal witness were largely under PNP administration so the poem could be taken as being biased. How else could I record the Green Bay massacre or the Orange Street fire or the regime of police brutality which emerged under the State of Emergency declared by Michael Manley?

I think the poem avoids propaganda because its texture is enriched with characters like Spencer, the despicable capitalist farmer; Nellie, the servant who sexually abuses the boy she is charged to take care of and who subsequently becomes a political enforcer; Tony, “The Frog” Blake, the white lieutenant of Nathan the black drug dealer, and Millicent, the good school teacher who sacrifices a kidney for her nephew’s survival. It is the scope of the narrative that demands the form of a novel yet, unlike a novel, there can be contraction and quick characterizations.

Like all good poems it wrote itself and left me to worry about its craft and formal structure. I worked under Matisse’s rubric L’s Exactitude ne pas le verite (exactitude is not truth), but set aside two hours every day at the same time to let the Muse visit me. This should be the routine of every poet, especially beginners. The Muse is a jealous bitch and if you take her for granted she will withdraw her favours.

View was taught at the University of the West Indies by Professor John Lennard who has prepared an annotated edition shortly to be published by Peepal Tree Press. I was invited to give a guest lecture to the 20 students who took the course. This was when I realized how indispensable my age was to conceiving the poem. The young students knew little or nothing of the history. It was they who had been brain-washed by propaganda and myth.

They were reluctant to believe that Green Bay happened. They were astonished at the cruelty of the Orange Street fire. Hopefully I was able to provide some balance which is really all that poetry can do without falling into didacticism and nationalistic simplicities.

The versatility of poetry and the poetic imagination allowed me to invent a lizard as one of the commentators in the poem. Reacting to the poverty of the drug dealer’s mother, it exclaims:

O green god of lizards, from the stale remnants

Of a shabby life like this what is left for me

To share?

Then the lizard understood

Why God had made the land his masterpiece

To compensate for the utter desolation of its people.

Divine justice of a special sort! Contrite,

The lizard fled. Fog stuck its tongue

Into the socket of the sun, short-circuiting the light


Ralph Thompson was born in America in 1928. His family on his mother’s side goes back three generations in Jamaica, a mixture of crypto Jewish (Isaacs) and Irish stock (Fielding).

Throughout his business career, working as Director of Seprod, Jamaica’s largest private company, first painting (he held a major one-man exhibition in Kingston in 1976) and then poetry have been ordering passions in his life. During a five year sojourn in Florida he did graduate work in English at the University of South Florida and arranged readings there by Derek Walcott, John Figueroa and John Hearne.

His poetry appeared in such journals as The Gleaner, Jamaica Journal, Kyk-over-Al, Carib, The Caribbean Writer and London Magazine, before his first collection, The Denting of a Wave was published by Peepal Tree in 1993. This collection contains a long poem, ‘The Other Island’ which explores his wartime Japanese experience. His second collection, Moving On (Peepal Tree, 1998) includes a witty eighteen part autobiographical poem, ‘Goodbye Aristotle, So Long America’ that deals with the experiences of a white West Indian abroad. View from Mount Diablo, Thompson's book-length narrative poem, won the 2001 Jamaican National Literary Award and was published by Peepal Tree in early 2003.

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