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.

Not in my kick-ass cabinet

Las May’s cartoon in last Thursday’s Gleaner kicked Senator Dorothy Lightbourne to the curb. His nasty representation of the senator’s fall from grace is just vicious:  Prime Minister Golding sends his former minister of justice and attorney general flying with a well-placed boot to the butt.

At a time when women in Jamaica are constant victims of abusive men, Las May portrays the prime minister as a classic perpetrator of physical and psychological violence against a woman! If I were Bruce Golding – God forbid – I would demand an apology.  But an apology, by its very nature, cannot be legislated.  It has to be freely given by the offender.

There’s no question that Senator Lightbourne deserves to be kicked out of the cabinet.  Metaphorically speaking, of course.  The kick is a familiar image of dismissal.  We use it all the time.  So much so that it has become a cliché.       Las May’s cartoon puts the punch back into the metaphor through the power of visual narrative.

You know that other cliché:  a picture is worth a thousand words.  Saying that Senator Lightbourne has been kicked out of the cabinet is a thousand times less violent than seeing her literally brought low. Las May fully understands the power of the picture.  That’s his job.  He knows what he’s doing.  His attack on the senator is a deliberate blow below the belt.

Dorothy Lightbourne

True, Senator Lightbourne is no angel of light.  She foolishly ventured down some rather dark tunnels of deceit.  Seemingly pretending to be a victim of Alzheimers, she conveniently forgot dangerous truths.  I completely understand how Senator Lightbourne could fail to recall very recent events and yet could so clearly remember K.D. Knight kicking her chair thirty one years ago.

That’s how Alzheimers works.  Long-term memory remains intact.  It’s short-term memory that vanishes.  But Senator Lightbourne should remember the Jamaican proverb that warns, ‘trouble deh a bush, anansi carry it come a yard’.  Alzheimers is not a disease to ‘run joke’ with.  Is bad enough to ‘put goat mouth’ on other people.  You shouldn’t put it on your own self.

‘Dutty Laugh Jamaica’

Las May has also joined the long line of people – including me –  who need to apologise to Mr. Clifton Brown. Mr. Brown never said ‘the bus can swim,’ as I reported in last week’s column.  That was DJ Powa’s splicing.

Incidentally, truth really is stranger than fiction.  Looking for a picture of Mr. Clifton Brown on the internet, I ran into this story:

“MP Raises Issue of Flooding in the Cotswolds

10th February 2011

Yesterday in the House of Commons, Wednesday 9 February, Cotswold MP, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, once again raised in [sic] the issue of flooding in the Cotswolds. Subsequent to a letter from Mr Barry Russell, the Environment Agency’s Area Flood Risk Manager, Mr Clifton-Brown took the opportunity to raise his concerns in a debate on the Funding of Flood Risk Management in Parliament.”

So it’s not just in Jamaica that there are problems with flood waters.  The very same Britain to which 60% of Jamaicans want to return for governance is having grave problems with basic infrastructure.  Even in Britain, there are many rivers of bureaucracy that cannot easily be crossed.

Sharon Hay-Webster

In last Friday’s editorial cartoon, which focuses on Sharon Hay-Webster’s exit from the People’s National Party, perhaps to join the Jamaica Labour Party, Las May makes Mr. Brown say, ‘Sharon, you canna cross it . . . ongle if you are a fisser-‘oman!’

Like Simon Crosskill and Neville Bell, who so vulgarly derided Mr. Brown on the now rebranded ‘Dutty Laugh Jamaica,’ Las May seems to feel entitled to ‘tek Mr. Brown mek poppyshow’.  Bell did apologise to Mr. Brown.  But it sounded like he was forced to mouth an apology.  I don’t think his heart was in it.

I also wonder why Crosskill got away with not apologising to Mr. Brown in the same formal way that Bell did. He behaved just as badly as his co-host.  Though the camera focused on Bell, Crosskill’s laughter was audible throughout.  Crosskill was the set on. Straight-faced, he pretended to be conducting a serious interview with Mr. Brown while setting up Bell to be the fall guy.

Just look at the way Crosskill introduces Bell’s apology to viewers:   ‘And in case you didn’t know it, today is a white shirt day.  It’s surrender day.’  Crosskill’s choice of the word ‘surrender’ immediately turns the promised apology into a joke.  Surrender is giving up against one’s will.

In response to Crosskill’s declaration, Bell says, ‘Yeah, let me start there.’  And what is Crosskill’s response:  ‘So quick?’  It’s as though he’s surprised that Bell is actually taking the apology seriously as a matter of urgency.  But Bell’s response to that ‘jook’ is not a good start:     ‘Yeah, my producer said I should I should do it at this time.’  The repetition of ‘I should’ suggests that the apology itself, not just its timing, is legislated by the producer.

This is what Bell says:  ‘Ever since that interview that I was a part of with Mr. Clifton Brown last Friday, a number of folks have suggested that my behaviour was inappropriate.  There was no intention to be disrespectful, there was no intention to ridicule Mr. Brown and at no time was I laughing at Mr. Brown.  Having said that, because of the perception, I do want to apologise to Mr. Brown.’

Bell’s apologia reminds me of Sir Hilary Beckles’ equally bogus apology for comparing Chris Gayle to ‘Dudus.’  In Beckles’ case it was the ‘deductions’ not his actual statements that were the problem.   So, too, with Neville Bell.  It is the ‘perception,’ not the reality, of inappropriate behaviour that forces him to surrender to the weight of public opinion.

Simon Crosskill’s indirect ‘apology’ is much more honest – no surrender: ‘Now I understand, I don’t know if is certain, that Clifton also now has benefitted not only from the video but from the interview and is getting a fairly large contract with one of the telecommunications companies.  So the whole perception that Clifton was embarrassed and we were being wicked to him is misplaced.’

Crosskill asks a trick question: would the public be as offended by the mockery of Dorothy Lightbourne or any other politician?  Of course not.  Even though she’s been kicked out of the cabinet, Senator Lightbourne is still powerful.  She’s on one side of the social divide and Mr. Brown is on the other.  That’s the big difference.  If only the Prime Minister would kick himself off the cabinet!  But that’s one river he cannot cross.