West Indies, U.S.A by Stewart Brown

Cruising at thirty thousand feet above the endless green

the island seems like dice tossed on a casino’s baize,

some come up lucky, others not. Puerto Rico takes the pot,

the Dallas of the West Indies, silver linings on the clouds

as we descend are hall-marked, San Juan glitters

like a maverick’s gold ring.

All across the Caribbean

we’d collected terminals – airports are like calling cards,

cultural fingerprints; the hand-written signs at Port-

au-Prince, Piacro’s sleazy tourist art, the lethargic

contempt of the baggage boys at ‘Verde Bird’ in St. John’s….

And now for plush San Juan.

But the pilot’s bland,

you’re safe in my hands drawl crackles as we land,

‘US regulations demand all passengers not disembarking

at San Juan stay on the plane, I repeat stay on the plane.’

Subtle Uncle Sam, afraid too many desperate blacks might re-enslave this Island of the free,

might jump the barbed

electric fence around America’s

back yard’ and claim that vaunted sanctuary….’give me your poor….’

Through toughened, tinted glass, the contrasts tantalise;

US patrol cars glide across the shimmering tarmac,

containered baggage trucks unload with fierce efficiency.

So soon we’re climbing,

low above the pulsing city streets;

galvanized shanties overseen by condominiums

polished Cadillacs shimmying past Rastas with pushcarts

and as we climb, San-Juan’s fools-glitter calls to mind

the shattered innards of a TV set that’s fallen

off the back of a lorry, all painted valves and circuits

the road like twisted wires,

the bright cars, micro-chips.

It’s sharp and jagged and dangerous, and belonged to some-one else.

The Break Down

What is the poem about?

The poem details the narrator’s experience of flying through the Caribbean and stopping at different airports, with particular reference to his thoughts about the stop in San Juan. He references other countries and the makes mention of the US relationship to Puerto Rico.

Stanza 1

Cruising at thirty thousand feet above the endless green

the island seems like dice tossed on a casino’s baize,

some come up lucky, others not.

The author employs visual imagery from the get go with his initial description of the land below. It’s endless green gives the impression of adequate vegetation or tree cover. We are then told in the very next line that he is looking at an island. The layout of which seems haphazard in nature, like dice tossed on a casino’s baize. Some come up lucky, others not could be a reference to, from the poet’s view, the inhabitants who ended up residing in the nicer areas or better parts of the island as opposed to those who did not. Though, because the poet saw fit to reference a casino which hints at gambling (line 2), there is the connotation of the lucky ones being the rich and the others being the poor.

Puerto Rico takes the pot,

the Dallas of the West Indies, silver linings on the clouds

as we descend are hall-marked, San Juan glitters

like a maverick’s gold ring.

We are told now that the poet is looking at Puerto Rico and that it takes the pot. This indicates that it has won a ‘prize’ or rather ‘hit the jackpot’. Puerto Rico is referred to as the Dallas of the West Indies. Dallas is the wealthy capital of the state of Texas in the United States. Puerto Rico, for the poet, is the richest island in the West Indies.

The continuing lines: silver linings on the clouds as we descend are hall-marked, could be an indication that everything good about the country is distinctive and can be identified at a glance. The poet then gives credence to the previous thought and then introduces a new consideration with: San Juan glitters like a maverick’s gold ring. San Juan, the capital, stands out in seeming contrast to the rest of the country which, because of the use of the word glitters and the final line in the stanza like a maverick’s gold ring suggests that everything surrounding San Juan is dull in comparison and perhaps Puerto Rico, being so prosperous is rebelling against the usual expectations of an island port. The final line in the stanza makes use of the literary device, simile.

Stanza 2

All across the Caribbean

we’d collected terminals – airports are like calling cards,

cultural fingerprints;

Prior to reaching his final destination, his plan stopped at many airport terminals. At each terminal he was able to spot distinguishing characteristics from each culture. Using a simile, airports are like calling cards, the poet shows that airports are more than just a transit hub, it leave clues about the country you are in.

the hand-written signs at Port-

au-Prince, Piacro’s sleazy tourist art, the lethargic

contempt of the baggage boys at ‘Verde Bird’ in St. John’s….

And now for plush San Juan.

In Haiti, Trinidad and St. John’s the airports were all different and left the poet with separate impressions. He was now looking towards San Juan, to see what Puerto Rico would present him with.

Stanza 3

But the pilot’s bland,

you’re safe in my hands drawl crackles as we land,

The poet was not encouraged by the Pilot’s tone, this was just another flight for the Pilot.

‘US regulations demand all passengers not disembarking

at San Juan stay on the plane, I repeat stay on the plane.’

Subtle Uncle Sam, afraid too many desperate blacks might re-enslave this Island of the free,

might jump the barbed

The author’s tone becomes derisive in this part of stanza 3. With reference to America, Uncle Sam, the poet comments on the Pilot’s statement, that the passengers are not allowed to leave the plane unless they were disembarking. With reference to the US anthem, Star Spangled Banner, by way of pun-Island of the free-and a snide comment about black people coming to re-enslave the poet detects a hint of racism.

Stanza 4

electric fence around America’s

back yard’ and claim that vaunted sanctuary….’give me your poor….’

Stanza 4 begins as a continuation of the final line in stanza 3. There is no punctuation breaking the narrative, only the switch in stanzas. The poet highlights the relationship of Puerto Rico as a territory to the US by calling it America’s backyard. He suggests that the US regulations are in place to prevent the same blacks mentioned in stanza 3 from using Puerto Rico as a gateway to the US. His displeasure at the harsh nature of the regulations is still evident as he paraphrases a line from the Statue of Liberty give me your poor. He doesn’t think that America stands by that by any means at all.

Through toughened, tinted glass, the contrasts tantalise;

US patrol cars glide across the shimmering tarmac,

containered baggage trucks unload with fierce efficiency.

So soon we’re climbing,

The differences between the other airports and San Juan piqued the poet’s interest, and the heavy presence of the US contributed to that greatly.

Stanza 5

low above the pulsing city streets;

galvanized shanties overseen by condominiums

polished Cadillacs shimmying past Rastas with pushcarts

and as we climb,

As they left the airport and were flying over the island, the contrasts continued and the poet lists them in the lines above. One of the main highlights is the contrast with the different socio-economic classes and how they live with each other for example: polished Cadillacs shimmying past Rastas with pushcarts.

San-Juan’s fools-glitter calls to mind

the shattered innards of a TV set that’s fallen

off the back of a lorry, all painted valves and circuits

the road like twisted wires,

The imagery in the final lines of the stanza are poignant and, are in a way horrific. The land below brings to mind a TV set that’s fallen.

Stanza 6

the bright cars, micro-chips.

It’s sharp and jagged and dangerous, and belonged to some-one else.

Continuing the imagery, the author likens the TV set being damaged to Puerto Rico and concludes by saying that the country does not belong to the locals: belonged to some-one else.


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