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The poem “West Indies, USA” is written by the English poet, Stewart. The poem talks about the widespread influence of America on other parts of the world. The persona is a man on the flight to Puerto Rico. He stops at San Juan and sees the dismal state of the country and the stark contrast in the living conditions. The persona remarks the clash in reality and cultures in San Juan.
About the poet
Stewart Brown was born in 1951 in the United Kingdom. He is an English poet, editor and a critic. He is also a lecturer of African and Caribbean Literatures. He has four poem publications to his name, including Zinder and Mekin Foolishness.
The poem is written in free verse. It is divided into 6 stanzas of arming lengths. Stanza 1, stanza 2 and stanza 4 consist of six lines each. Stanza 3 and stanza 5 consist of seven lines and the last stanza, stanza six, has only two lines.
Cruising at thirty thousand feet above the endless green the islands seem 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.
The poet persona is a passenger on a flight flying over Puerto Rico. The speaker sees an endless green island while flying over it. He compares the island to a dice thrown in a casino. He also says that the dice thrown may come up lucky for some and not for others. He says that Poerto Rico wins the game of gambling and becomes Dallas, an American city in Texas, of the West Indies. This game of luck is the silver lining in the clouds of San Juan, which has become prosperous and is shining like gold.
The speaker looks at Puerto Rico from above and thinks that it is prospering as it has won the dice game, the game of luck, by being a colony of America. He thinks that because the country is now under America, it would be considered lucky and have wealth and prosperity. He looks a the city and compares it to Dallas in America which is part of an oil rich state. He thinks that in the same way, the city would be rich as well and that is the silver lining to the whole situation. He looks at the lush green island and thinks that San Juan is glittering the same way gold does.
All across the Caribbean we’d collected terminals – airports are like calling cards, cultural fingermarks; the hand-written signs at Port- au-Prince, Piarco’s sleazy tourist art, the lethargic contempt of the baggage boys at ‘Vere Bird’ in St. Johns... And now for plush San Juan.
In this stanza the speaker talks about how he has traveled through many terminals and collected them. He says that all these airports are like calling cards which give out the information about the country at one glance. He calls them cultural figuremarks, as they showcase the culture of the country. In Port Au-Prince, the speaker found handwritten signs and in Piarco he saw sleazy art for tourists. In the airport of St. Johns he found that the baggage boys were lazy and held contempt for their jobs. All of this leads the speaker to wait for what San Juan’s airport is going to reveal.
In this stanza we can see the speaker judging the culture and the socio-economic condition of the places by how their airport terminals look. He thinks that these terminals are like calling cards that give out all the information about the quality of life, the facilities and the attitude of the people. In Port Au-Prince he saw signs written by hand, this shows that the area does not have the necessary funding for proper facilities. In Piarco, the art in the terminals was produced so,let for the people visiting the place. The art looked sleazy. The baggage handlers in St. Johns were slow and lazy. They looked like they were not happy with their jobs. All this showed the poor condition of the countries. The last line shows that the speaker thinks San Juan is going to be much different and better than all of these places as it is going to be “plush”.
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,
In this stanza, the poet’s flight has landed in San Juan. He tells the reader that upon landing the pilot of the aircraft makes the announcement. The pilot says that all the passengers whose final destination is not San Juan should not even get off the plane and explore the airport and should stay on the flight. This makes the speaker think of the American mascot Uncle Sam. He thinks that the American pilot and the authorities are scared that the “desperate blacks” might get off at San Juan and illegally migrate to America in search of new opportunities.
Through this stanza we can see that the speaker is judgmental about how not the pilot and the authorities are reacting. The announcement made by the pilot is discriminatory and racist. He does not want anyone to get into San Juan whose final destination is somewhere else. He says that Uncle Sam, metonym for America, is scared that the desperate blacks on the airplane may get into the island and pollute its prosperity. He says that they might get into the “island of the free”, here he uses irony because the island of San Juan is not actually free as it is under the control of America.
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,
The speaker says that the people of the Caribbean might illegally immigrate to America by jumping over the barbed and electric fence around the border of the country. The speaker says that the island is the backyard of America through which the people might enter America and claim a sanctuary of the country. This they might claim through the humanitarian program of America which asks for the world to “give me your poor”. But in reality when the speaker looks out through the toughened glass window of the airplane, he sees the reality. He sees how many US patrol cars roam around the streets and the baggage trucks work with efficiency. And then the flight is back in the air again.
The speaker notices that America is scared that the desperate black people of the Caribbean might jump the electric barbed fences on the border of the country and try to find sanctuary in the prosperous country. He says that they are scared of such instances happening in America’s backyard, i.e. the islands. The immigrants may come to claim new opportunities following the phrase “give me your poor” which shows the humanitarian vision of America which wanted to provide a safe haven for the disenfranchised people of other nations, but now it no longer allows that and even stops them from touching the soil of the country. The speaker looks out the window and sees the brazen reality of the country. Earlier he had thought that San Juan would be better than it’s neighbors because it is a colony of one of the super powers. But he sees that it is not so. The US police cars patrolling the streets shows that the crime rates are high in the country. On the other hand the workers of the baggage trucks work with military-like efficiency.
low above the pulsing city streets; galvanised shanties overseen by condominiums polished Cadillacs shimmying past Rastas with pushcarts and as we climb, San Juan’s fool’s 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 roads like twisted wires,
Now the speaker sees the city from above again and sees a completely different image. He sees the slum shanties being overlooked by high rise condos. The polished Cadillac cars move hurriedly past the lorries and pushcarts on the roads. Now San Juan no longer looks shimmering like gold, rather it looks like fools’ gold. It shines like the shattered glass of a TV which has fallen off the back of a lorry. The inside of San Juan is exposed just like the twisted wire of the TV.
The speaker now sees the country in a new light. He sees the reality and how the rich and the poor live such contrasting lives on the island. He can see the disparity in the standard of living, how the poor people live in small shanties while the rich live in big condominiums overlooking the slums. The same way the shiny and polished Cadillacs race past the Rastafarian on the roads. The speaker realizes the reality of the situs=action and now the island no longer shines at him like gold, rather it shines like broken shards of glass from a TV. Just like the twisted wires in a broken TV, the roads of San Juan look twisted and confusing.
the bright cars, micro-chips It’s sharp and jagged and dangerous, and belonged to someone else.
The bright cars on the roads look like micro-chips in the broken TV. But just like the TV screen, the island now looks dangerous with its edges sharp and jagged. And now the speaker knows that San Juan is not free and belongs to someone else.
The country looks dangerous to the speaker now and just like a broken TV set, San Juan is not desirable anymore as the tangle of America and San Juan’s culture makes it jagged and sharp. The country is no longer free and now belongs to America.