Apologies to the ‘Penis Poet’

Ralph Thompson

It would be most unfortunate if, at this late stage of his distinguished career, Mr. Ralph Thompson were to be reduced to the ignoble stature of ‘penis poet’.  I could barely forgive myself for any role I might be perceived to have played in bringing such dishonour on the head of a fine poet.

All the same, I’m rather surprised to see that Ralph is carefully distancing himself from the delightfully pungent humour of the earthy poem he performed last month on the open mic at the Calabash International Literary Festival. In a somewhat petulant letter to the editor, published in the Gleaner on Monday, June 18, 2012,  Ralph grimly insisted that I had failed to grasp the depth, if not the length, of his penile poem.

The provocative headline of the letter was “The Full Monty On My ‘Penis’ Poem”. I suspect that Ralph didn’t have a thing to do with that strip-teasing headline; it’s far too suggestive. A mischievous editor appears to have been having a little fun at the poet’s expense.  And the wicked allusion to ‘the full Monty’ also implies that I didn’t quite have a handle on the poet’s meaty meaning.

The letter itself elaborates the point:  “In two of her recent columns, Carolyn Cooper, in commenting on a poem I read at Calabash, has used my name as a springboard for some of her general opinions about sexuality. This has been done in good fun, I am sure, but has inadvertently served to trivialise an otherwise serious poem.

In the interest of civility and protection of my reputation, I would be grateful if you would publish the poem in its entirety so that readers can judge for themselves the theological and poetic integrity of the work”.

Infectious laughter

William Blake illustration of the Book of Job

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!  ‘Mi sari, mi sari, mi sari, mi sari, sari’! I’ve exposed the poet’s impeccable reputation to the risk of infectious laughter by drawing undue attention to the opening line: “At 84, I have outlived my penis”.  The poet intended to discharge theology, not sexology.  Like the Old Testament Book of Job, the poem raises a deep question: why do the righteous suffer?

Or, more precisely in this instance, why does the righteous man suffer from sexual impotence? The answer is that one must just learn how to make a deal with God and accept his will, however unpleasant the circumstances. Memory of the itch and scratch of sexual ecstasy will persist. Writing poetry becomes an act of divine sublimation.

At core, Ralph Thompson’s poem is about the perversely pleasurable tension between sexual desire and sexual frustration.     For ease of reference, here’s the ‘non-penis’ poem in its entirety:

It’s a deal

“Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be.”

– Browning

At 84, I have outlived my penis

and now by His grace there is a peace of sorts.

But how to cope with memory, its walls scrawled

with graffiti of recall, where itch

still lingers dreaming ecstasies of scratch.

But I have learned from Job to bargain with the Lord –

a deal that He, post mortem, will contra

the excruciations of my journey

against the penances assigned to sin,

the divine books balanced.

Before Alzheimer’s dirty sleeve erases all,

quick, write a poem.

A cheap trick?

 Having dutifully made ‘a peace of sorts’ with Ralph, I still have lingering questions about the thrust of that potent opening line.  By focusing on the penis, I seem to have cut short the full extent of the poet’s weighty philosophical meditation. The ‘poetic integrity of the work’ has, apparently, been adulterated.

Ralph would have us believe that the alleged death of the penis wasn’t just a cheap trick to hook the reader/audience.  It was actually meant to signify the mysterious way in which God moves to perform his wonders.  Unfortunately, resuscitating a dead penis does not seem to be high on the list of divine priorities.

Calabash audience 2012

Fair is fair. I could much more easily accept Ralph’s ponderous theological argument with great civility if the opening line of the poem had been “At 84, I have outlived my knees”.  Of course, that decidedly unsexy line would have drawn no irreverent laughter.  Instead, the mature audience at Calabash would have nodded sympathetically. And the poet would have seemed rather lame.

Knee failure is a familiar ailment for many of us who are not quite 84. And well-oiled knees are a pleasure akin to sex that only those who are suffering from arthritis would understand.  Not to mention the delicate fact that certain sexual positions are off-limits to the weak-kneed.

Knee versus penis:  no contest.  I just don’t understand why Ralph can’t concede that a poet who could deliver such a penetrating line with a straight face is a cut above the rest.  This is not an impotent man whose identity is defined by half a foot, more or less, of dangling flesh.

Hans Sebald Beham illustration

In any case, sex is a theological issue.  It’s not a trivial matter.  Some theologians argue that the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was sex.  That’s why Adam and Eve realised that they were naked only after eating it.  Not each other, of course.

I think Ralph got a little weak-kneed after reading my columns and decided that he had to take a stand against slackness, however feeble. But he’s done himself an injustice.  In his haste to demonstrate “the theological and poetic integrity of the work”, he has deflated the humour that buoyed up a rather depressing subject.

Ralph frames his own poem with a famous quotation from Robert Browning’s “Rabbi Ben Ezra”, a very long and very mournful reflection on ageing. Browning wrote the poem at the age of fifty-two, three years after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who had Jamaican roots. I much prefer Ralph’s version.  The dead penis made his poem spring to life:  the real deal.

Jamaican Men Love Oral Sex

Yeah, right!  And they believe it is more blessed to give than to receive.  Seriously, though, no matter how much our men protest in public, I’m convinced that deep down, where it really counts, Jamaican men love oral sex. I mean they just love to talk about sex.

That’s why a lot of our men simply can’t keep their mouth shut in the presence of an attractive woman.  They think they know exactly how to sweet-talk us.  And they don’t miss an opportunity to show off. In this context, someone has got to do the listening, willy-nilly. So there’s oral sex and aural sex.

I got a most entertaining response to the column, “I Have Outlived My Penis”, published two weeks ago.  It came from a man whose partial email address is ‘cunnilingus69@.’  To protect his identity, if not his virtue, I will not disclose what comes after the @.  No, I’m not saving him for myself.  There’s no need to.  I suspect that there are far more men like him around.  But they’re undercover.  They know they’re not supposed to admit that they do ‘it’.  So they pretend to be tongue-tied.  Or, at best, they speak with a forked tongue.

Engraving by Felicien Rops

This is what #69 had to say: “No, that headline is definitely not for me, and even if that was so, I am damn sure I can find a hell-of-a-good substitute!!!!! Good morning there rebel, eh. I really meant lady. I merely read the headline and without blinking, I said that that had to be you. And thank God I was not disappointed.

“Poor Ralph, well, if it ded it ded, nothing can be done about a dead penis. You seem to be forgetting that even if that man cannot stand firmly on his third leg that there is another part of his body that can become very stiff in a split second and one that most women eagerly enjoy, if not more. The tongue. No resuscitation is necessary”.

‘Dem bow’

Bowing, the dancehall term for oral/aural sex, wittily expresses both the physical posture and mental state of the devotee.  Literally, to bow is to bend or incline (the knee, body, or head) in worship, submission, respect, civility, agreement, etc. In the dancehall sense of the word, bowing suggests deference to the woman’s pleasure, a gesture no upstanding man is prepared to admit that he makes.  But, of course, women do bow as well.  It’s the golden rule:  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  In some instances, bowing is not reciprocal, a clear case of ‘wash-over gold’ misrule.

Shabba Ranks

Shabba Ranks’ 1990 hit “Dem bow” is a classic chant of damnation against those who do, in fact, bow. The DJ condemns both cunnilingus and fellatio in graphic imagery:  “man under table” and “lipstick pon hood head”.  Oral sex is seen as deviant behaviour coming from ‘foreign’ to corrupt supposedly ‘pure’ Jamaican culture.  Like homosexuality, oral sex is vigorously censured in dancehall lyrics.

But the DJs protest much too much.  Their obsessive attack on certain sexual behaviours makes me wonder if they’re not running and a-running and a-running away from themselves, with apologies to Bob Marley.  If that’s not so, then it’s high time for the DJs to stop minding other people’s sexual business.  On that score, I must congratulate Beenie Man for having the good sense to bow out of the name-calling game.  And the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica must also be congratulated for bowing to reason and giving back the DJ a work permit.

Beenie Man

Beenie Man has been much derided for his decision to make an uneasy peace with gay rights activists.  Bounty Killer has charged Beenie Man with selling out.  In an interview reported on the OutAroad website, Killer is alleged to have said, “Me can’t ever put a dollar over Jamaica and its culture. If it wasn’t for dancehall and its culture I don’t know where or who I’d be today. Mi nuh sorry fi nothing that I said or sang; I am sorry to know it offended anybody but that’s how I see it. My views and beliefs, all I can say is that homosexuals fi stop try ban we shows and dancehall must leave dem alone to God still and let peace reign.”

Bounty Killer

Bounty Killer’s ‘leave dem alone to God still’ concession is not as innocuous as it seems.  In Jamaican parlance, leaving someone to God is a fate worse than death.  All the same, Killer’s conciliatory posture is definitely an act of bowing.  He does concede that dancehall DJs should stop acting on God’s behalf and leave judgment to Him/Her. This is a major advance in dancehall sexual politics that must be resoundingly applauded.

‘Marriage have teeth’

The Gleaner’s front-page story, “Lesbians Legally Wed”, published on June 4, 2012, was just as sensational as the lyrics of any of our homophobic DJs. The editors of the Gleaner turned a private affair into a public scandal.  Perceptive readers objected:    “The title of this article is a misleading lie.  ‘Lesbians legally wed’ infers along with the picture that the legal wedding was held here in Jamaica.  Shame on the gleaner for junk journalism”.

The floodgates were opened and the predictable responses came pouring in.  ‘Fire bun!’  Fundamentalist Christians in Jamaica (and elsewhere) take the Book of Leviticus literally and insist that homosexuality is an abomination that must be purged.  And, unlike Bounty Killer, they are not leaving judgement up to God.

On top of that, marriage is seen as the divine right of heterosexuals. But marriage is not all that it’s cracked up to be.  Jamaican proverbial wisdom warns that ‘marriage have teeth an bite hot’. I think gay people should have equal rights to be bitten by marriage. And that’s not about oral sex.  It’s the whole penal institution.

Murder in Montego Bay – A Spitting Shame

There are conflicting accounts of who actually murdered the nameless man who used to wipe windscreens for a living in Montego Bay.  The first version of the story went like this: “A man who wipes windscreens was shot and killed at the intersection of Howard Cooke Boulevard and River Bay Road in Montego Bay, St. James this evening. He attempted to wipe the windscreen of a motorist, who refused, and he spat on the windscreen. After an argument, the man was shot in the head. The body remained on the road, and traffic built up along the thoroughfare”.

Then there’s the dub version:  “the police say their preliminary investigation indicates that the man was shot by an assailant on foot near the traffic lights at the intersection of River Bay Road and Howard Cooke Boulevard. 

The shooter is said to have made his way from the River Bay Road Fishing Beach and shot the man then escaped on foot”.

 The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie, who read at the Calabash lnternational Literary Festival last month, gave a much-publicised talk at Oxford in 2009, titled “The Danger of a Single Story”.  She focused on the troubling question of whose version of ‘truth’ really counts.  Drawing on the wisdom of her culture, she challenged her audience to think about the power dynamics that determine whose story becomes history.

This is how Chimamanda put it:  “It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is ‘nkali’. It’s a noun that loosely translates to ‘to be greater than another.’ Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.  Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”


Next to nothing

In Jamaica today, the definitive story about that man who was murdered in MoBay is quite simple:  he deserved his death.  Whether it was the motorist or the pedestrian who killed him, it doesn’t really matter. In this instance, the two versions of the murder are, in fact, a single story.  Dangerously so.

The truth is the dead man was seen as expendable.  He was just one of that large number of anonymous, unemployed young men trying to make life and work out of next to nothing. And nothing is going to come of the case.  Just like that other incredible story of the enraged BMW driver who killed the schoolboy who just happened to be in the taxi that ran into the bumper of the idolized X6.

It is only in pauperised societies like ours that wiping windscreens could actually be conceived as a job, however humiliating. All cars come with windscreen wipers.  A purely mechanical function is transformed into a survival strategy for hundreds of young men in Montego Bay, Kingston and many other cities across the globe.

It’s not an easy job.  As a human windscreen wiper, you are constantly abused by potential ‘clients’ who simply do not want the service you are offering. You end up in a constant battle with motorists who see you as the enemy.  The red light is a dependable ally, trapping all but the most reckless drivers who routinely ‘bruck stop light’.

My strategy for dealing with the problem is to stay far from the intersection as I approach a red light.  I crawl as slowly as I can, praying for the light to change.  By the time the ‘yutes’ realise I’m stalling and rush to pounce on me, my prayer is usually answered and I ‘swips’ right past them.

Deadly judgement

I do understand the frustration of that motorist who didn’t want his windscreen wiped – or, more likely, smeared up with soapy water.  But if the first version of the single story is to be believed, murder is an act that only a deranged person could contemplate, let alone bring himself to commit, in these circumstances.

It is unfathomable that a little spit could bring down such a deadly judgment. After all, the function of the windscreen is precisely to protect the motorist from fluids of all types, including spit.  All you have to do to get rid of the unwelcome moisture is to turn on the ‘real-real’ wiper.

Of course, it’s not the spit but the diss that’s the cutting issue.  How dare a mere wiper of windscreens think that he could show contempt for a motorist?  He ought to know his place as a non-person.  After all, he is nothing but a windscreen wiper – an inanimate object.  For him to harbour feelings of superiority and, worse, to express them by spitting, is a clear sign of rising above his station in life.  He must be cut down.

I think all applicants for gun licenses should undergo mandatory psychological testing.  There must be some way to weed out the pathological types who have limited self-control and who will get into a murderous rage at the slightest provocation.  Admittedly, there are lots of illegal firearms circulating in Jamaica and their owners (or renters) operate with total disdain for the system.

But I have a feeling that not even the most hard-hearted outlaw gunman would shoot a youth in his head because he spat on the windscreen of his car.  This murder seems to be about rank class prejudice.  We have to find a sustainable solution to the chronic problem of unemployed young men.  As the poor get poorer, more and more youths will find themselves on the streets hustling to survive. Shooting them in the head is not an option in a supposedly civilised society.

‘I Have Outlived My Penis’

Ralph Thompson on the Calabash stage

That’s the far-from-flaccid opening line of the poem Ralph Thompson performed on the open mike at the Calabash International Literary Festival, held two weekends ago in Treasure Beach. The calabash was full to the brim and running over with all sorts of literary delicacies. And some delightfully indelicate offerings as well.

Rigor mortis of the penis is not exactly the kind of stiffness the average Jamaican man advertises. Most men who can’t stand firmly on their third leg tend to cunningly conceal that fact. By the time the deceit is uncovered, it’s usually too late for the disappointed partner to withdraw strategically. Some pretense at resuscitation must be made, however futile.

But, of course, Ralph is no ordinary man. He’s a poet. And he’s licensed to form the fool. The poet often wears a mask and speaks out of both sides of the mouth. You can’t assume that he or she is speaking autobiographically. No self-respecting Jamaican man, poet or not, would publicly declare, especially in front of a huge audience, that he, personally, is suffering from penile failure. Fun is fun and joke is joke. A confession of that delicate nature would definitely be taking a limp joke too far.

No lead in the pencil

My suspicion that Ralph was putting us on was confirmed when one of his friends (who must remain nameless) gleefully told me that it was he who had given Ralph that potent opening line. That may be true. But Ralph turned the single sentence into a witty poem. His punchline was deadly: writing had become a substitute for sex. The penis as pencil – with or without lead! Retooling becomes high art.

Willie Nelson

As it turns out, the confession of the death of the member is a clear case of ‘thief from thief, Massa God laugh’. A quick Google search revealed that the joke is a Willie Nelson original:

My nookie days are over

My pilot light is out

What used to be my sex appeal

Is now my waterspout.

With a name like Willie, Nelson must have taken firm measures all his life to ensure that his namesake remained lively. But, alas, not all ends come good. So even if it’s only tongue in cheek, inevitably it’s time for true confession. All the same, Nelson’s willie cannot be taken at face value. Like Ralph’s, it seems to be just lying low, waiting to spring poetically to life.

‘Di world no level’

What’s good for the poet should be good for the DJ too. But ‘jackass seh di world no level’. And it’s true. Every ‘chune’ a DJ chants is interpreted as a literal statement of fact by dim-witted cynics. Unlike the poet, the DJ is not allowed to wear a mask and play roles. So Buju Banton sings a humorous song about sending a driver to ‘drop this arizona round a Albamarle’. And it becomes a true confession of the artiste’s involvement in drug trafficking!

Bruce Golding

Bruce Golding, the driver whose licence has now been revoked, chose to ride the ‘riddim’ of Buju’s hit. It became a very popular Jamaica Labour Party campaign song. Nobody in the party seemed to be bothered by the song’s ‘criminal’ message. Driver was taken for what it was: a clever song about the trade in ganja, a widely used recreational drug. Admittedly, for Rastafari, ganja is ‘creational’, infusing them with divine energy.

Peter Tosh, like many reggae artistes such as Toots Hibbert and Bunny Wailer who have been imprisoned for possession of ganja, made a lifelong plea for decriminalisation:

Doctors smoke it, nurses smoke it

Judges smoke it, even the lawyer too.

So you’ve got to legalise it,

And don’t criticise it

Legalise it, yeah, yeah,

And I will advertise it.


The high point of the Calabash festival for me was hearing Ronnie Kasrils reflect on his extremely risky work as a member of the African National Congress (ANC), which he joined in 1960. In his memoir, Armed and Dangerous, published in 1993, he writes about what it meant for him, as a white South African, to participate in the freedom struggles of black people. He also wrote a biography of his wife, Eleanor, who shared his lifelong commitment to social justice. He called it The Unlikely Secret Agent.

Kasrils also talked about the role of reggae artistes like Peter Tosh in chanting down apartheid. We sometimes forget the global impact of our artistes who are often dismissed at home as mere criminals.

That’s precisely why Justine Henzell, who has inherited the film-making genes of her father, Perry, is producing a documentary for Jamaica 50 in which she includes coverage of reggae across the world, in the spirit of the iconic movie The Harder They Come.


It was the Jamaican High Commission in South Africa that put Justine in touch with the hugely popular selector, Admiral, whose African Storm sound system plays every Thursday in Soweto. He was invited to clash with a local Treasure Beach selector, Andrew, at Cala-Clash  which is always a big hit at the literary festival.  ‘Admiral mash up di place.’  The week after Calabash, he was a guest selector at Stone Love.

This really is a small world. Kwame Dawes went to a conference in South Africa where he met Ronnie Kasrils. He was completely absorbed by the life story of this remarkable man. When Ronnie heard of Kwame’s Jamaican roots, he told him that his son, Andy, had been invited to Jamaica for a literary festival.  It was Admiral. Kwame immediately invited Ronnie to come as well.

Andy Kasrils grew up in exile in London and discovered reggae through his Jamaican friends. In 1987, following in his father’s footsteps, he joined the ANC liberation army ‘MK’ in Angola. On his return to South Africa, he started a dancehall show on the Voice of Soweto community radio and has not looked back. By the time I got around to buying Ronnie’s book on his wife, he’d left the festival. So I asked Admiral to sign it for me. He was most amused when I explained the meaning of our proverb, ‘If you can’t catch Kwaku, yu catch him shirt.’

Busy Signal And His Knight in Shining Armour

Clovis Cartoon

Busy Signal is no damsel in distress.  True, he’s in extraordinary trouble:  jailed and facing extradition.   But Busy is definitely not a damsel.  ‘Im a man’.  All the same, I’m sure the DJ is relieved that Queen’s Counsel K.D. Knight agreed to represent him in his extradition case.

Armed with the weight of his expansive legal knowledge, brightly shining Knight jousted very skillfully on behalf of his client.  The QC has insisted that even though the DJ has waived his right to contest the extradition, he should only be facing the absconding charge mentioned in the warrant.

Incidentally, when was the last time you saw QC and DJ in the same sentence?  Things are picking up for dancehall culture.  There was a time when DJs were pariah.  No self-respecting attorney-at-law would take up a DJ’s case.  But things and time do change.  Even DJs are presumed innocent until proven guilty.  They are entitled to a fair, even if expensive, hearing.

Patricia Meschino

In a Billboard.biz article posted on May 22, music journalist Patricia Meschino gives a summary of Busy Signal’s court case in the U.S.  “Minnesota District Court Case No. 0:02-cr-00054-JMR-FLN: USA v. Gordon, with a Glendale Gordon being charged with one count of conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, three counts of conspiracy to distribute cocaine (level 4) and a third charge of possession with intent to distribute cocaine. The ‘Level 4′ is an indicator of conspiracy to distribute five or more kilograms.

“A former resident alien of the US, Gordon purportedly removed his ankle bracelet tracking device and fled to Jamaica prior to sentencing”.

“Nah Go Jail Again”

As I listened to the plaintive words of Busy Signal’s Nah Go Jail Again, I wondered what would happen if cocaine were decriminalised in the U.S. again.  Yes, again.  There was a time when cocaine was a perfectly legal recreational drug. It was not until 1914 that the Harrison Act was passed in the U.S. Congress, making it illegal for the drug to be dispensed except with a medical prescription.

  Given the widespread demand for the substance, the trade ended up in the hands of criminals.  It’s a familiar story.  Trafficking in alcohol was a crime in the U.S. from 1920 to 1933.  Criminalisation of the drug created wealth.  It is alleged that even a supposedly respectable family like the Kennedys had relatives who amassed a huge fortune selling bootleg liquor.

In his song Nah Go Jail Again Busy gives a haunting account of the trauma of incarceration.  He confesses why he had to flee the U.S. prison system:  fear of generic violence as well as the specific threat of sexual abuse:

Mi seh thugs deh pon dah side yah and di stiff deh pon di other,

Caan diss no man weh a do life inna dem yard ya,

Get beatin from the warden if yu go round di order,

Yu caan drop no soap pon di border like Shebada

Caan have a next man a plait yu hair,

Caan have a next man a spot yu rear,

Caan have so much money and food pon yu commissary

And a gwaan like you naa share”.

There are pull factors as well as push.  The prospect of making it legally in the outside world motivates Busy Signal to cut and run:

Seh wi naa go a jail again – oh no!

And wi never gonna fail again – oh no!

Like a ship wi a go sail again – oh oh!

You would a never see mi call mi friend fi bail again


Naa see mi a courthouse no more – oh no!

No bracelet up inna house no more – oh no!

Mi step out and hold mi own fi sure – oh oh!

Real hustlers a road a mek money galore”.

Reggae Music Again

  Since stepping out of the U.S., Busy Signal has been holding his own for sure as a very successful dancehall/reggae artist.  His latest album, Reggae Music Again, released in April, is a stellar achievement.  In a BBC review, Lloyd Bradley, author of Bass Culture:  When Reggae Was King, describes the album in this way:

“Busy Signal’s deserved reputation as a hardcore dancehall deejay often overshadows his bringing a fresh tunefulness to the genre in recent years, expanding its scope and extending songs’ longevity.  With Reggae Music Again he builds on all the clever musicality of 2010’s D.O.B. to produce an album that, appropriately for the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence, immerses itself in reggae music heritage”.

Busy Signal is the cover story for the current issue of Riddim, Germany’s upscale reggae/dancehall magazine, with a bi-monthly circulation of 45, 000 copies.  Last Monday, I got an early morning call from Ellen Koehlings who co-edits the magazine with Pete Lilly. She was distraught at the news of Busy’s arrest.  Just when the artiste is riding the high wave of success, it looks as if his ship ‘naa go sail again’.

I expect that Busy Signal’s endorsement contracts will be cancelled.  Pepsi-Cola Jamaica has already pulled the Pepsi Bubbla advertisements in which he appeared.  I suppose Red Label Wine will follow suit.  As soon as an artiste gets into trouble, advertisers immediately distance themselves.  Innocent or guilty, the DJ becomes an outcast.

Busy Signal’s case raises a number of questions.  How, if at all, can the legal systems in the U.S. and Jamaica accommodate reformed criminals – whether they are DJs or not?  What purpose would be served by sending Busy Signal back to jail for the crimes of his youth?

Conventional justice demands that the guilty pay for their crimes, I know.  But in what currency?  Is incarceration the only legal tender? Is mercy nothing but counterfeit justice?  Does reformation not count at all?  It would be such a tragedy if the artiste’s musical career were to be permanently disconnected.