High Time Fi Woman Bishop

Two spelling systems are used for the Jamaican language below. The first, which I call ‘chaka-chaka’, is based on English spelling. The second, ‘prapa-prapa’, is the specialist phonetic system designed by the Jamaican linguist Frederic Cassidy. It has been updated by the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona. After the two Jamaican versions, there’s an English translation.

CHAKA-CHAKA SPELLING

Look how long woman a run church a Jamaica! An it tek two thousand year an more fi di Anglican dem inna England decide dem mind fi mek woman turn bishop. Wat a sinting! An some a di man dem – an all woman too – bex, bex, bex.

Unknown-1Di bishop dem claims seh dem a tan up inna one long, long line weh go right back to Jesus an im twelve disciple. From man to man come down. Dem call it ‘apostolic succession’. Dem seh Jesus never have no woman disciple. A so-so man. So a man fi run tings ina di church. Woman no business fi waan turn no bishop. Unu tink it easy?

Di Anglican church do have woman bishop inna odder country laka Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Merica an Swaziland. But no inna England. Dem a hold on pon ole-time sinting. Some a di man priest dem so harden, dem seh if a no man bishop ordain dem, dem no ordain fi true. Wat a way dem backward! Mi sorry fi dem.

WOMAN LUCK

Tings an times a change. An all who naa change a go get lef. Anyhow, it look like seh di one dem weh waan bring een di woman bishop dem a try see wid dem odder one weh no ready. Dem no waan di church mash up. So hear wa dem a go do. All who no waan no woman bishop can aks fi one man.

imagesMi no know how dem a go manage if half a dem waan man an di next half waan woman. Dem mussi a go end up wid two bishop inna di one district weh dem call ‘diocese’. Then mek mi gi unu lickle joke. Di word bishop come from Greek: episkopos. Di epi part mean pon top; an skopos mean fi look. So bishop a overseer.

See ya! We done know bout overseer. Not a nice sinting fi a beat people fi work out dem soul case fi nutten. But dem ya holy-holy overseer supposen fi a look after wi soul an wi soul case. So wat happen to woman soul an soul case? Wi a no smaddy? Wa mek wi cyaan oversee fi wi owna soul an case? An fi di man dem to? Wa mek a ongle man can oversee?

Then through di Anglican church a di official church a England, di woman-bishop vote ha fi go a Parliament. An if it pass deh so, then di woman dem gone clear. An member seh it never easy fi woman turn priest. A no til 1994 dem ordain di first woman priest dem. Mi no understand wa mek it so hard fi Christian see seh man an woman supposen fi have di said same rights.

Old-time people seh, ‘woman luck deh a dungle heap; fowl cratch i out’. Dat simple mean seh good luck can drop pon woman anywhere. All inna dungle. Mi naa seh Anglican church a dungle. Mi no waan no overseer beat out mi soul case. But it look like seh nuff cratch-cratch a gwaan inna dat deh chuch fi root out some a di man dem an mek space fi woman. After all!

PRAPA-PRAPA SPELIN

15anglican-master315Luk ou lang uman a ron choch a Jamieka! An it tek tuu touzn ier an muor fi di Anglikan dem ina Inglan disaid dem main fi mek uman ton bishop. Wat a sinting! An som a di man dem – an aal uman tu – beks, beks, beks.

Di bishop dem kliemz se dem a tan op ina wan lang, lang lain we go rait bak tu Jiizas an im twelv disaipl. Fram man tu man kom dong. Dem kaal it ‘apostolic succession’. Dem se Jiizas neva av no uman disaipl. A suo-so man. So a man fi ron tingz ina di choch. Uman no bizniz fi waahn ton no bishop. Unu tingk it iizi?

Di Anglikan choch duu av uman bishop ina som ada konchri laka Aaschrielya, Nyuu Ziilan, Kyanada, Merika an Swaazilan. Bot no ina Inglan. Dem a uol aan pan uol-taim sinting. Som a di man priis dem so aadn, dem se if a no man bishop aadien dem, dem no aadien fi chruu. Wat a wie dem bakwod! Mi sari fi dem.

UMAN LOK

Tingz an taimz a chienj. An aal uu naa chienj a go get lef. Eni-ou it luk laik se di wan dem we waahn bring iin di uman bishop dem a chrai si wid dem ada wan we no redi. Dem no waahn di choch mash op. So ier wa dem a go du. Aal uu no waahn no uman bishop kyan aks fi wan man.

Mi no nuo ou dem a go manij ef aaf a dem waahn man an di neks aaf waahn uman. Dem mosi a go en op wid tuu bishop ina di wan dischrik we dem kaal ‘diocese’. Den mek mi gi unu likl juok. Di wod bishop kom fram Griik: episkopos. Di epi paat miin pan tap; an skopos miin fi luk. So bishop a uovasiya!

100_9513_midSi ya! Wii don nuo bout uovasiya. Nat a nais sinting fi a biit piipl fi wok out dem suol kies fi notn. Bot dem ya uoli-uoli uovasiya sopuozn fi a luk aafta wi suol an wi suol kies. So wat apn tu uman suol an suol kies? Wi a no smadi? Wa mek wi kyaahn uovasi fi wi uona suol an kies? An fi di man dem tu? Wa mek a ongl man kyan uovasi?

Den chruu di Anglikan choch a di ofishal choch a Inglan, di uman-bishop vuot a fi go a Paaliment. An if it paas de so, den di uman dem gaan klier. An memba se it neva iizi fi uman ton priis. A no til 1994 dem aadien di fos uman priis dem. Mi no andastan wa mek it so aad fi Krischan si se man an uman supuozn fi av di sed siem raits.

Uol-taim piipl se, ‘uman lok de a dongl iip; foul krach i out’. Dat simpl miin se gud lok kyan jrap pan uman eniwe. Aal ina dongl. Mi naa se Anglikan choch a dongl. Mi no waahn no uovasiya biit out mi soul kies. Bot it luk laik se nof krach-krach a gwaan ina dat de choch fi ruut out som a di man dem an mek spies fi uman. Aafta raal!

ENGLISH

UnknownWe’ve had women in charge of churches in Jamaica for so long! And it has taken more than two thousand years for the Anglicans in England to agree that women can be bishops. What a thing! And some men – and even women, too – are quite angry.

The bishops claim that their authority was established with Jesus and his twelve disciples. From man to man right down the line. They call it ‘apostolic succession’. They say Jesus did not have any female disciples. Only men. So it is men who must be leaders of the church. Women should not even want to be bishops. Can you believe it?

The Anglican church does have female bishops in some other countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the U.S. and Swaziland. But not in England. They are hanging on to tradition. Some of the male priests are so stubborn they argue that if they are not ordained by a male bishop, their priesthood is not legitimate. They are so backward! Too bad for them.

WOMAN’S LUCK

Things and times are changing. And all those who don’t want to change are going to be left behind. Anyhow, it seems as if those who support the proposal to make women bishops are trying to compromise with those who don’t. They don’t want the church to break up. So this is what they’ve decided to do. Those congregations that don’t want a female bishop can request a male.

I don’t know how they’re going to manage if half of them want a man and the other half want a woman. They’re going to end up with two bishops in one diocese, as they call the district for which a bishop is responsible. Then this is so funny. The word bishop comes from Greek: episkopos. Epi means above; and skopos means looking. So a bishop is an overseer!

Look here! We do know about this overseer business. It’s not a nice thing to have to beat people to exhaustion, body and soul, forcing them to work for nothing. But these sanctified overseers are supposed to look after both body and soul. So what’s the story with woman’s soul and body? Aren’t we human? Why can’t we overseer our own soul and body? And the men’s as well? Why is it that only men can be overseers?

ANGLICAN-master675Then because the Anglican church is the official church of England, the issue of female bishops has to be put to the vote in Parliament. And if it passes there, then the women would be free to take up office. And, remember, it wasn’t easy for women to become priests. It wasn’t until 1994 that the first female priest was ordained. I don’t understand why it’s so hard for Christians to accept that men and woman are supposed to have equal rights.

Traditional wisdom declares, ‘woman’s luck is in the garbage heap; the fowl scratches it out’. That simply means good fortune can fall on woman anywhere. Even in the dump. I’m not saying that the Anglican church is a dump. I don’t want to be beaten by any overseer. But it seems as if a lot of digging up is being done in that church to uproot some of the men and make space for women. After all!

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‘Straight’ Spouses At Risk

images-1No matter how hard I try to filter out spam, I end up getting all sorts of unwanted email messages: fraudulent appeals from friends supposedly stranded abroad who need large sums of money to help them come home; sales pitches from China offering goods and services I don’t need; notices that I’ve won huge sums of money in lotteries for which I don’t even have a ticket. You know the usual thing.

The most interesting bit of unsolicited mail I got last week was from South Florida Connects, Inc. Its tag line is ‘No Straight Spouse Left Behind: Straight Spouse Awareness’. The language is old-fashioned, but the issues are current. The website reveals that “You are a straight spouse if you are a heterosexual individual married to or dating someone who is secretly gay, bisexual, lesbian or transgendered.”

images-2I immediately wondered how you would know that your allegedly heterosexual partner is not what he or she appears to be if his/her double life really is a secret. That’s the trouble with being an English teacher. You constantly pay attention to the meaning of words. All the same, I suppose secrets have a way of slipping out, especially if the spouse in hiding secretly wishes to come clean.

The website offers the assurance that “[i]t is better to be hurt by the truth than to be comforted with a dangerous lie”. Then again, proverbial wisdom advises that “where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise”. Anyhow, I called the number on the website (954-815-6563) and left a voicemail message.

Ian Boyne

Ian Boyne

PAINFUL RELIGIOUS HARD TALK

The night before I got the ‘straight spouse’ email, I watched ‘Religious Hardtalk’, hosted by Ian Boyne. It was painful. I saw my friend Annie Kitchin valiantly trying to engage in intelligent conversation with the Rev Clinton Chisholm. She had a hard time. Rev Chisholm defines himself as a “Christian apologist”. This is not the same as an apology for a Christian. Annie declared herself to be an atheist.

The problem with being an apologist for any cause is that you often end up appearing irrational. Even if, as in the case of Rev Chisholm, your cause is proving the rationality of Christianity! An apologist takes a position and refuses to budge. On the subject of homosexuality and the Bible, the good reverend seemed unwilling to concede that the laws of Leviticus which sentence to death perpetrators of “unnatural” acts are unconscionably outdated. Well, that’s how it sounded to me.

images-4Annie was on form, completely dismissive of the backward view that all Old Testament laws have validity in modern times. She systematically demolished Rev Chisholm’s arguments. But, of course, he may not agree. In any case, it is precisely this hanging on to irrelevant biblical codes of conduct that makes us so unwillingly to accept the fact that the human rights of all homosexuals in Jamaica ought to be protected under the law. Not only those whose class privilege usually gives them immunity.

And just as the rights of lesbians, all-sexuals and gays need to be protected, so too ‘straight’ people should be protected from the guile of deceitful spouses. We need a ‘straight spouse’ support group in Jamaica. It’s the flip side of J-FLAG. I searched the Internet to see if we already had a support group here. I ended up right where I started: on the South Florida Connects, Inc website.

NO SEX ON HONEYMOON

Debbie Thomas-Brown

Debbie Thomas-Brown

Debbie Thomas-Brown, a Jamaican nurse and former schoolteacher, founded the association based on her own experience and the fact that her research showed there was no support for immigrant straight spouses like her. Right off the bat, she said the fundamental problem is that Jamaica makes being gay a crime. Our society does not allow gay people to be their authentic selves. So many pretend to be heterosexual for an easy life.

Their spouses pay the price, especially innocent young women raised in Christian homes who have little sexual experience and no point of comparison to measure their spouse’s performance – or lack of it. Debbie told me about a young couple who had no sex on their honeymoon. The husband had absolutely no interest. Then the wife caught him with a huge erection, pleasuring himself with the help of gay porn. You can just imagine how she felt.

images-8Deprived of sex, neglected wives start to believe that something is wrong with them. Their husbands tell them they are too thin or too fat. They are just not sexy. In some instances, their husbands have sex (with them) only once a year. Debbie argues that gay men tend to marry women with low self-esteem, who often have anxieties about their attractiveness.

Another target group is women in service-oriented professions who have been trained to keep secrets: nurses, teachers, doctors, social workers, lawyers and police. They are not likely to ‘out’ their partners. And if the women do confront their husbands in private, even with very good evidence, the men usually accuse their wives of being ‘crazy’. And the women start to doubt themselves because that’s the last thing they really want to believe.

images-9I learnt that there’s a Grindr app designed for gay men that facilitates quick hook-ups. It’s available all over the world. Say you’re in the National Stadium at a football match and you send out a message that you want a ‘Canadian’. In the jargon, that’s an uncircumcised penis. In two twos, the app will locate several willing members nearby. It’s as easy as that.

Debbie said she would love to be a guest on ‘Religious Hardtalk’. She has a particular burden for Christian women who get caught in relationships with men on the down-low. And it’s not only women who are conned. Heterosexual men also end up marrying lesbians in the church. Finding a ‘good’ man or woman in the house of the Lord is not as straightforward as we once thought it was. Over to you, Pastor Boyne!

Jews and Plantation Slavery in the Caribbean

Two Sundays ago, when I visited the Shaare Shalom synagogue for the Kingston on the Edge (KOTE) concert, ‘Music Is Sacred’, I got a grand tour of the Museum of Jamaican Jewish history that is located next door.  My distinguished guide was Mr Ainsley Henriques, leader of the Jewish community in Jamaica.

The exhibits tell a captivating story of triumphant survival in exile.  The display of sacred objects and cultural artefacts was supplemented by Ainsley’s informative commentary.  He’s a historian and genealogist with a passion for heritage preservation.  In fact, he’s the current chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.

Schroeter Watercolour of Richmond Estate, 1800

I was somewhat surprised to see that the museum didn’t tell the whole story of Jewish history in Jamaica.  The role of Jews in plantation slavery is not documented at all.  This silence is troubling especially since so many students visit the museum each year.  They end up getting a rather distorted account of Jamaican, not just Jewish, history.

In his prophetic song, “Columbus”, reggae philosopher Burning Spear warns that

“A whole heap a mix up, mix up

A whole heap a bend up, bend up

Go ha fi straighten out”.

Burning Spear was, primarily, contesting the falsehood that Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ Jamaica:

“I an I all I know

I an I all I say

I an I reconsider

I an I an see upfully that

Christopher Columbus is a damn blasted liar”.

The reconsidering and upfull revisioning that Burning Spear advocates can be applied as well to the many other partial histories we’ve inherited.  Especially this year, as we celebrate 50 years of Independence, we must acknowledge Burning Spear’s challenge to set the record straight.

Songs of lamentation

Rembrandt painting of Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem

As it turns out, Jewish people played an undeniable role in plantation slavery in Jamaica.  Ironically, Jewish exiles in the strange lands of the so-called ‘New’ World were complicit in the process of enslaving Africans.  Forced to sing King Alpha’s song, Africans in the Diaspora found consolation in the sacred book of the Jews.  They created their own dub version of Jewish songs of lamentation.

On that score, I got a rather stern response on Facebook to last week’s column, “Rastafari Reclaim Jewish Roots”, from Barbara Blake Hannah:  “‎‘Reclaim’ or ‘share’ Carolyn? ‘Reclaim’ would mean Rastafari originated from Judaism, not Christianity as I&I proclaim. And where were the Rastafari participating in the ‘Nyabinghi’? Seems more like a Red Bones concert in the Synagogue with reggae Rasta artists! You mean to tell me that ‘Selassie is God’ was being chanted by those gathered? If so, sorry I missed the ‘binghi’”.

Of course, ‘reclaim’ does not imply a singular origin.  The roots of Rastafari are rhizomatic, like ginger.  And I was using binghi metaphorically.  But, as I’ve learnt after almost three years of writing this column, some readers are quite suspicious of metaphors, preferring to take everything literally.  Barbara insists on a ‘correction’.  So, to make her happy, I hereby renounce my use of the metaphor of the binghi.  It was, literally, only a concert.  And the roots of Rastafari really have nothing in common with ginger.

Movement of Jah people

How Jewish people came to be engaged in plantation slavery in the Caribbean is a rather long and complicated story. The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, more popularly known as the Spanish Inquisition, launched a holy war against non-Catholics in 1480.  Jews and Muslims were the targets of attack.  The tribunal was not abolished until 1834, the very same year that slavery was outlawed in the British Caribbean.

Muslims from North African, who were called Moors, had invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 and occupied it for almost 600 years.

The Spanish Inquisition was a belated attempt to purify the land of ‘foreign’ religions.  Many Jews supposedly converted to Christianity but practiced Judaism in secret.  The Alhambra decree, issued in January 1492, put an end to the pretence.  It demanded the expulsion of Jews.

Human trafficking routes

Columbus’ ‘discovery’ opened doors of opportunity for Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal.  Many Sephardic Jews went to Brazil where they made fortunes in plantation slavery.  According to Ralph Bennett in an essay, “History of Jews in Brazil”,  “It is believed that the first sugar cane was brought by a Jewish farmer from Madeira to Brazil in 1532. Sugar cane became the foundation of the Caribbean economy for several centuries”.

First synagogue in the Americas, Recife (1636)

At the end of the fifteenth century, the Pope had imperiously divided the ‘New’ World between the Spanish and the Portuguese.  The grasp of the Inquisition reached Jews in Brazil.  Many were again forced to convert to Catholicism.  But in 1630, the Dutch West India Company captured the city of Recife in the north of Brazil and the religious freedoms enjoyed in Holland were extended to the colony.  Jews could now openly practice their religion.

But freedom was short-lived.  In 1645 the Portuguese launched war against the Dutch and reclaimed Recife in 1654, round about the same time that Jamaica became a British colony.  Jews expelled from Brazil made their way to the Caribbean, first to Barbados and then Jamaica, taking with them the capital and technology of sugar production.

Historian Karl Watson notes that, “Barbados presented opportunities for trade. By the mid-seventeenth century it was quite apparent that the English experiment in creating colonies in the West Indies for the export of tropical crops was working exceptionally well in Barbados. These newcomers were well placed to exploit this burgeoning sugar economy as part of their extensive Sephardic trading network extending from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean”.

The Jewish exile in the Caribbean enabled the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and the migration of waves of indentured labourers from Europe and Asia.  This is the other half of the Jamaican Jewish story that must be told.  ‘Jack Mandora mi no choose none’.

Rastafari Reclaim Jewish Roots

Stuart Reeves photo

Last Sunday evening, a binghi was convened on the sandy ground of the Shaare Shalom synagogue, located downtown at the intersection of Duke and Charles Street.  This crossroads, named for British royalty, was transformed into a gateway to the roots of Rastafari.  Majestic Nyahbinghi singers and players of instruments celebrated the survival of both Jewish and African people who learned to chant songs of freedom in a strange land.

Grounded in the Bible, much of Rastafari symbolism is rooted in Judaism.  Though Rastafari themselves reject ‘ism and schism’, their philosophy and livity owe much to the ‘ism’ of the Jews. Captive Africans in the Americas identified with Jews enslaved in Babylon.  Zion became a code word for Africa; and Babylon was the Diaspora.

It was the Melodians who composed and first recorded the Rastafari chant, “By the Rivers of Babylon”, which was adapted from Psalm 137: 1-4.

“By the rivers of Babylon

Where we sat down

And there we wept

When we remember Zion

For the wicked carry us away captivity

Require from us a song

How can we sing King Alpha’s song

In a strange land?”

The holy book of the Jews provided vivid imagery for many other reggae songs, as in Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”.

“Old pirates, yes, they rob I

Sold I to the merchant ships

Minutes after they took I

From the bottomless pit

But my hand was made strong

By the hand of the Almighty

We forward in this generation

Triumphantly.”

Marley’s lyrics echo Genesis 49:24: “But his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob”.

Shashamane

King Alpha, Emperor Haile Selassie I, empowered Rastafari to refrain from weeping in exile.  He facilitated the process of repatriation to the continent of Africa.  In 1948, the Emperor set aside 500 acres of his own land for Rastafarians in Jamaica and members of the Ethiopian World Federation Incorporated (EWF), based in the United States, to establish a settlement in Shashamane. The EWF took its mission from Psalm 34:14 – “Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it”.

Kingston on the Edge

The cross-cultural groundation in the synagogue was part of Kingston on the Edge (KOTE), the exhilarating urban arts festival that ended yesterday.   First staged in 2007, KOTE continues to cross borders and level barriers.  This year’s theme was “Identity The Opened I”.  The sacred concert in the synagogue was certainly an eye-opener.

The photograph taken by Stuart Reeves documents the grandeur of the occasion. The sand on the floor is a reminder of the wandering of the children of Israel in the desert for 40 years after they escaped Egypt.  It is also a symbol of the divine promise recorded in Genesis 22:17: “That in blessing I will bless you, and in multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies”.

The Spanish Inquisition

During the Inquisition, many Jews were forced to convert to Christianity to escape death.  But they continued to practice Judaism in secret – in much the same way that many Christians in Jamaica practice obeah, I suppose. According to legend, the undercover Jews used sand on the floor to muffle the sounds of their prayers.

Behind the magnificent mahogany doors in the synagogue is the sacred space in which the Torah is housed.      These doors also provided a towering backdrop for the musicians. Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith, popularly known as ‘Melchizedek, the High Priest of reggae guitar’, was the chief celebrant.  The Hebrew word Melchizedek means ‘my king is righteousness’.

Enola Williams photo

All of the ‘Inna de Yard’ musicians who performed with Chinna Smith lived up to their righteous, royal calling: Kiddus I, Cedric Myton, Jesse Royal, to name just a few. Della Manley and Suzanne Couch also performed.  After the concert, Ras Sangie confided that it was he who had written “Wake Up and Live”, a song he gave to Bob Marley.

L A Lewis Almost Famous

Other events for this year’s KOTE festival included an Open House with the Rose Town Potters; a short film festival at Red Bones curated by David Morrison; a public forum on “Copyright Laws and the Creative Arts” at the National Gallery.  The Kapo Gallery was re-opened last Sunday.  One of my favourite Kapo paintings is titled ‘You Are My Plumbubi’.   It shows a man and woman tightly locked in an erotic embrace – a divine encounter.

Last Friday evening, the infamous L A Lewis, whose purported signature defaces many public spaces, made his debut as a ‘real-real’ artist at Redbones.  Described as a ‘conceptual’ artist, L A created an installation that included, according to the KOTE brochure, “some items that he has ‘actually touched’”.

More conventional artists like David Muir, Maxine Gibson, O’Neal Lawrence, Carol Crichton, Mortimer McPherson, Gisele Gardner, Garfield Morgan, Olivia McGilchrist, Mark Harrison, Ingrid Coke and Inasi also exhibited during the festival.

Thanks to the founders of KOTE – Enola Williams, Beatriz Pozueta, Carolyn Lazarus, Joaquin Portocarero and Omar Francis – we’ve been reminded yet again that, despite all the crime and violence, Kingston is a capital city.

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.