V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics



(Plymouth, Montserrat)



                            Thomas struts through the entryway
                of the Central Power Station whistling a pop tune
                                    (as usual, I'm tagalong,
full six steps back), unnoticed by the cadre of uniformed staffers,
                            all five bent forward, converging
in a neat pentagonal formation around the low gaming table.  One man
                                    suddenly looms up tall,
                projects one arm over his head and brings his fist
down hard on the gameboard unloosing a small tablet, ah dominoes!÷
                            but now, he's caught our approach
                with a side glance, whereupon he fast interrupts
                                    bets and heated contest
extending a warm handshake of greeting, first to his chum Thomas,
                            then to me·  So few words spoken

find us dashing through hallways and corridor into the power
                                    house magical interior
                led by Peter÷the midday shift foreman÷whose instant
defection from the game in progress prompts scowls and jeers

                            from his fellows.  Peter, oblivious
                to their chagrin, is never so happy as conducting
                                    the guided walkabout
of this labyrinthine power complex.  Presently, I find myself staring
                            at the multidialed control panels
in a long succession of radio transformers, stacked in varied tiers
                                    with bulky dimensions
                on a grand scale I've never beheld or conjured up
apart from the inner sanctums of 1950's horror movie science labs....
                            Peter waits me out a tad, while I
                recover my wits from the garrison of huge tin boxes
                                    piled one upon another.
So few inches divide the standing machines, stretching from wall
                            to wall, before and behind, often

nearing the far ceiling above÷a cursory glance could trick
                                    the hasty viewer's eye
                into supposing them merged in a single continuous
matrix.  A few meters start blinking, their luminous dials

                            swinging back and forth, rarely
                at a stillstand, until those flashing yellow lights
                                    and ratchety buzzers
warn the mostly-absent technicians to forestall any meter limits
                            that may be wildly transgressed.
Three rotating squads, Peter explains, are on duty at all times:
                                    24 hours a day, 7 days
                a week, no holidays excepted.  Since Montserrat's
debut, years back, as the East Caribbean's central communications
                            artery, the meters and circuits
                must be monitored at all times, crises often coming
                                    when least expected.
Our Peter enjoys local fame as a Trouble Shooter, boasts Thomas,
                       second to none in the Lesser

Antilles island chain, while Peter scoffs at such high praise.
                                    By subtle turns, the talk
                swerves to frequency systems and state-of-the-art
power relay equipment÷prompted by my niggling questions

                            about the seven outdoor antennae:
                two tallest near the seashore, five others ranked,
                                    equidistantly, in a row
near this powerhouse, two of the latter five half again higher
                            than three·  Pete's eyes brighten.
He feels a zest for the important numbers, for so many countries
                                    whose diverse languages
                are relayed across great tracts of land and sea
by their unique radio programming hookups.  Just inland from shore,
                            that pair of towering antennae
                are cued to strictly English language programs.
                                    The five smaller aerials,
all circuited for short-wave programming, carry the multifarious
                            foreign language networks.  Of these

the highest, which gives out a modest fifty kilowatts, transmits
                                    programs in Portuguese,
                Spanish & German that are heard, alternately, on radios
throughout the night.  All such European and South American

                            stations are relayed to Montserrat
                directly from Berlin's Radio Deutsche Welle: at various
                                    times until late morning,
wave frequencies are switched to accommodate each tongue, in turn,
                            by a skilled crew of German engineers
who, scurrying about as we talk, make the rounds like long-distance
                                    runners circling an indoors
                track.  They move with great celerity and bounce.
Chins up, toes lifted high (nearly goose-stepping), their body tempos
                            are revved up to such a febrile pitch
                they must seem to be a different species of mammal
                                    from their local cohorts.
Peter and his staff glide hither and yon, afloat like fawns at ease
                            in the forest÷ghostly their slow,

lingering gait.  The Germans, so few in total, less than a third
                                    of the Montserratian crew,
                seem to outnumber us all÷many times over.  Who can keep
count of their comings and goings, entries and exits, zipping

                            down aisles, circuiting the four walls,
                as if checking out evry floor crack or ceiling blemish?
                                    And Peter tacitly defers
to each passing technician, felt to be less a bow to superior officer
                            than the man's natural bent to soften
rough edges and make no waves÷he'd keep any strained relations between
                                    the two adjunct camps
                under wraps, though any visitor may instantly pick up
the hostile vibes.  A fluent and sparky talker, effusive Peter keeps
                            the sheer bulk of data from growing
                tedious, my ears enchanted as much by ardent delivery
                                    as by the multi-lingual
programming stats.  Thanks to the BBC's recent gift, a hefty stipend,
                            he'd gotten Montserrat's radio complex

back on its feet, from near-bankruptcy to happy solvency.  The range
                                    of programs in English
                has never been so elaborate as today's menu, and his crew
are kept busy switching channels all day long.  For late-night

                            writers like yourself, he says (winking
                at me), we offer four hours of Voice of America & Radio
                                    Canada news run-downs.
The daylight hours are packed with a medley of local Antilles shows:
                       Rock, Soul & Bob Marley Reggae music,
I can tell you, are de big ting wit' young folks these days and they
                                    be callin' de shots
           more and more·  Says he heard me read some cool lines
from my poems this morning (winks again), sandwiched between longer
                            takes by leading female vocalists.
           It's O.K., I say.  Poetry always has to take a backseat
                                    to more popular arts
at home, too.  Lucky to have a patch of floor for standing room only.
                            So forget about any poet's chair·


                        As if absently,
                    Peter reaches overhead
                during our chat & pulls down a lever
            on the highest switchboard÷then
        a few lights grow dim on the panels & one meter
    flashes a yellow signal,
which he seems to ignore or overlook·
    We continue our relaxed talk, while faint yelps
        issue from a rear room.  The voice
            may be outside, it sounds
                so distant we hardly take notice.  The far-off
                        squeals grow near,
                    rising in pitch to grunts.
                Hans bursts into the hall of transmitters,
            so angry and red-faced
        he can hardly control himself.  Hans' scolding phrases,
    blurted between wheezy gasps,
fly past our guide and mentor, prompting Hans
    to chasten him by name.  Peter, now truly startled,
        averts his glance to the portly
            Chief Engineer blocking
                the doorway (his wide round face all one scowl)÷
                    Vy d'yu pool zee
                    svidge, eez dangerous, yu
                could blow out zee main transformer·  Pete,
            gabby as ever, slides
        from denial to apology, while Hans barrels forward,
    nonstop, in his chastisings.
Pliz, I begs yu, read again paydge tventy-
    seeks in zee savedy manyule·  When he cools down,
        the local man, phlegmatic, tries
            to mollify him with glib
                promises.  But Hans, resuming our tour himself,
                        leads us outdoors
                    to the yard.  Alas, today's
                no usual afternoon, he'd have us believe:
            there's been no end of troubles
        in the past week with the cable-and-wireless lines,
    now's the worst crisis yet,
so the whole telegraph system had to be shut
    down an hour ago; but luckily, the new antenna's
        to be installed on Chance's Peak
            in a few days.  Meanvile,
                vee do crisis maintenance, kadge as kadge can,
                        patchup vork·  Hans
                    shows us two freshly-dug holes
                in the yard, soil-rich heaps piled up high
            on both sides: exposed pipes
        and cables left in disarray, dangled loose ends agape,
    here and there. Zee repairmen
are on eek-sten-ded lunge break (his voice sinks,
    wearied, he sighs), who can stummuck zeyre alleybyes
        for endless timeouts from vork?·
            Most kind to us, he makes
                a visible effort to find simple layman's words
                        to convey his pain
                    over foulup of the snarly
                webwork of tubes & lines in the pit below,
            perhaps two full meters
        beneath our feet poised upon the rim.  Oy, don't stand
    too close, he warns.  Today,
vee half to realign zot ground net·  Constant
    MAYDAY crisis calls, those SOS's, do indeed prevail
        here, as we can see.  It's the normal
            everyday tactic to shut
                down any key segment of the electric power
                        system, and freely
                    improvise new ways to make
                one part of the total hookup pinch-hit
            for another, each carrying
        some extra load, time and again.  So the engineers
    must know the exact limits
prior to overload and blowout, shrewd
    & savvy in their crisis bets.  Now Hans, himself,
        Chief Engineer, is a veteran
            of twenty years service
                back home in Dusseldorf, but never had to tackle
                        so many freakish
                    breakdowns so often.  Oh yes,
                he's happy to undertake fresh challenges,
            but the frequent clashes
        with laid-back native foremen & their gamy lax crews
    drive him and his cronies
up zee vall!·  Volatile Prussian mood swings,
    high-pitched croaky voices, even when cooled out:
        you sense their helpless push-and-pull
            tempi in the rigid
                fierce body moves, no leeway, no give, they must
                        be racing about!
                    Pure frenzy, plastered over
                with orderliness....  Our tour ended, hearty
            thanks & handshakes with Hans÷
        we file back through the office, Pete's crew still swept
    up in the Dominoes Tourney:
players locked in a dead heat of last moves
    to the finish, fistfuls of money waved overhead
        (big bucks riding on this one, we'd
            guess)·  They barely notice
                our fleet sandals trotting past the table.  Victory
                        outburst.  Winners
                    teasing losers.  Quips overheard
                behind the shut door as we depart.  Whoever
            loses be de skunks.  Don' be cryin',
        boy, you gets another crack at de title next week!

© by Laurence Lieberman


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