Updated: Jun 7, 2021
West Indies, U.S.A.
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. 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. 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; 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, the bright cars, micro-chips It’s sharp and jagged and dangerous, and belonged to someone else.
A man in an airplane on a stopover flight stops momentarily in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The man remarks about Puerto Rico being different from the other countries of the Caribbean he'd stopped in. He also laments the fear the US has of the poorer people of the Caribbean stowing away illegally in the country. As the plane climbs above the streets of San Juan, he recognizes the stark contrasts in the city: between shanties and condominiums, poverty and affluence. He, in so doing, exposes the the 'dual reality' and economical segregation within Puerto Rico itself and in the Caribbean as a whole. He makes note of the plush appearance of Puerto Rico being 'fools-glitter,' showing that although the country appears wonderful, it has serious underlying issues nonetheless. Brown ends the poem with the powerful remark that Puerto Rico's dangerous clash of cultures and dualistic reality only belongs to the USA. The mood of the poem is sarcastic. The tone seems to be bitter or resenting, and the themes include oppression, discrimination
"Cruising at thirty thousand feet above the endless green"
The persona is in an airplane above the lush greenery and foliage of the country below. This provides us with some visual imagery.
"the islands seem like dice tossed on a casino’s baize, some come up lucky, others not. Puerto Rico takes the pot,"
The poet uses a simile "islands seem like dice tossed on a casino’s baize," to compare the islands to dice tossed on a baize (this is the soft velvet fabric used on pool tables and card tables). This is used to show not only the small and insignificant size the islands seem to have when looking down from that height, but also the way in which the prosperity of each Caribbean island seems to be up to chance.
Puerto Rico has seemingly won this game of chance. The poet says that "Puerto Rico takes the pot," showing that, like in poker, where the winner takes all of the money wagered, Puerto Rico won in terms of prosperity.
"the Dallas of the West Indies, silver linings on the clouds"
In an allusion comparing Puerto Rico to Dallas, a city in the oil rich state of Texas, the poet reinforces the idea of Puerto Rico being an incredibly prosperous and affluent standout from the other Caribbean islands. The poet also seems to making a connection between the USA's acquisition of Puerto Rico in 1898 and the USA's annexing of Texas from Mexico in 1845. He therefore establishes a relation between the prosperity of both the state and the island.
The poet also alludes to the cliché of 'every cloud has a silver lining' to again make the point that the island is wealthy, and a place of great economic opportunity (unlike some of its fellow Caribbean islands).
"San Juan glitters like a maverick’s gold ring."
The poet compares San Juan to a maverick's gold ring using simile. The word maverick suggests an outsider, or non-conformist. In this way, Puerto Rico is shown to be completely different from the other islands in the region. San Juan, Puerto Rico is in the Caribbean but is not the same as the other islands- it belongs to the USA.
"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."
The persona states that they'd 'collected terminals' across the Caribbean as they travelled. He compares airports to calling cards (using a simile), implying that the airport of each country, like a calling card, gave them information of the country overall. The quality of the airport would depict in a compact way the socioeconomic state of the rest of the country. The poet also calls the airports 'cultural fingermarks,' as they all have unique aspects to them that relate the wider cultural landscape of the island. He lists that the signs were hand-written rather than printed in Haiti, that the art was produced solely for tourist consumption in Trinidad, and that the baggage handlers in Antigua were slow, filled with contempt and reluctant in doing their jobs. All of this contrasts starkly with the 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...'"
As they descend, the pilot (likely southern American based on the word 'drawl') states that everyone not coming off in San Juan should remain on the plane instead of being able to explore the airport. The speaker takes on sarcasm now, stating how 'subtle' Uncle Sam (metonym for the United States) attempts to be by trying to disguise their discrimination with regulation. This regulation is basically saying that you may not even step foot onto Puerto Rican soil if it is not your intended port of disembarkment. The persona is disgusted with the Americans for being so prejudicial.
He states his belief that the US is only fearful that an influx of 'desperate blacks,' i.e. the people of the Caribbean in search of economic opportunities will undermine the prosperity of the island.
The poet also uses a pun here with 'island of the free.' 'Land of the free and home of the brave' is a line from the national anthem of the USA. The poet utilizes a play on words here to again reinforce the idea that Puerto Rico belongs to America. This could also be seen as an instance of irony, since it is ironic that the poet refers to Puerto Rico as an 'island of the free' while subtly insinuating that it is not truly free and is property of the US. His use of 'free' also brings up the idea that Puerto Rico is free in comparison to the other Caribbean islands simply because of its affluence.
The persona states that the US fears too many desperate blacks might jump the fence around America's backyard and 'claim that vaunted sanctuary.' This line alludes to a term used in former US president Ronald Reagan's speech on anti-American regimes in the Caribbean and Latin America in the 1980's. He said that the US government would not tolerate the establishment of such governments in America’s backyard.
The final part of the line seems to be said with some bitterness or disgust by the persona. The phrase "give me your poor" is a quote from the poem New Colossus by Emma Lazarus placed on the Statue of Liberty. The full line states "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." The poem highlights a humanitarian vision of the US, one that welcomes the disenfranchised of the world, like how the early immigrants were welcomed. But in Puerto Rico, the immigrants now are barred from even touching the soil- showing that these 'American ideals' are not realized there.
"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,"
As the persona looks through the toughened windows of the airplane, he realizes the contrasts between Puerto Rico and the other islands. The patrol cars and baggage trucks move with 'fierce efficiency' showing that the workers are working with military-like severity and precision (unlike the lethargic St. Johns baggage boys). They are back in the air quickly, so their efficiency seems to be a way to get them out of their country as quickly as possible.
"low above the pulsing city streets; galvanised shanties overseen by condominiums, polished Cadillacs shimmying past Rastas with pushcarts"
The persona, now in the plane which is still low above the streets is able to see the contrast between his first impressions based on appearance and the reality that would have gone unnoticed at a higher altitude. He can now see the disparity between prosperity and penury within San Juan- the shanties in small towns being overlooked by lush condominiums, the pristine Cadillacs 'shimmying' past Rastas with pushcarts (this suggests a skittish avoidance of the Rastas because of their poverty). The Rastas are juxtaposed with the owners of expensive Cadillacs and condominiums who are at the top of the economic food chain and can flaunt their material opulence.
"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, the bright cars, micro-chips."
This lucid, perspicuous realization that the glittering golden maverick ring of Puerto Rico is only fool's gold, that the reality is far different from the appearance, reminds the persona of a shattered TV 'that’s fallen off the back of a lorry.' This is similar to the idiomatic expression 'to fall off the back of a lorry,' which means to come into someone's possession by illegal or dubious means, usually stealing. The visual imagery created by the broken television comparison shows a sort of confusing tangle of roads and streets as seen in the simile 'the roads like twisted wires.'
"It’s sharp and jagged and dangerous, and belonged to someone else."
Here, the persona makes his final remarks about the island. He refers to the tangle of American culture and Puerto Rican culture; and the juxtaposition of prosperity and penury to be dangerous. From a distance, or even an altitude, Puerto Rico looks like a prosperous modern country, but upon closer scrutiny, the island is not so desirable after all. Puerto Rico is reduced to a shattered television set; it is broken and whoever possesses it, is in receipt of stolen property.