What is Stewart Brown's poem "West Indies, USA" about?

Stewart Brown's poem "West Indies, USA" is about the influence of the United States on the islands of the West Indies and their inhabitants. He points out that some islands have done better than others, and the one that seems to have done the best is Puerto Rico. However, even in San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital city, the wealthy appearance is deceptive, because there is still a great gap between the wealthy Americans and the poor locals.

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Brown, an English poet and university instructor who specializes in Caribbean and African studies, wrote this poem as a commentary on the Caribbean islands but particularly on Puerto Rico.

From above, with the islands spread out below him, Puerto Rico seems to have won the "pot." He calls it the wealthy "Dallas of the West Indies" because it is owned by the United States.

Yet as the plane lands in the San Juan airport, the speaker's view begins to shift. When the pilot says that only people for whom Puerto Rico is the final destination can disembark, the speaker begins to think that Puerto Rico's bounty is meant only for the rich. He believes that the pilot's words about not leaving the plane are meant to keep out Black interlopers who might sneak onto the island (one might question, however, how many "desperate blacks" are on a 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 the plane rises above San Juan, and the speaker can see shanties juxtaposed with condos and Cadillacs, his view that Puerto Rico is a jackpot for the rich alone is confirmed. He ends by stating that Puerto Rico is "sharp and jagged and dangerous" and meant for someone else.

The speaker brings his knowledge of the history and politics of the Caribbean to bear on what he sees with his own eyes. He knows that Puerto Rico is owned by a wealthy country and that this gives it a seeming edge over the other countries nearby. But his interpretation of what he sees offers him a different, darker perspective of who benefits from this island.

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In the poem "West Indies, USA" by Stewart Brown, the narrator is flying high above the islands of the West Indies in a commercial aircraft. He compares the islands to dice thrown on a table in a casino and points out that some islands have won and some have lost. This is a reference to the influence of the United States on these islands. He writes that the luckiest island, the one that "takes the pot" and wins the "gold ring," is Puerto Rico.

The narrator has been judging each island by its airport terminal as he passes through from one to the other, and he mentions idiosyncrasies of some of them. For instance, Port-au-Prince in Haiti has "hand-written signs," Piarco in Trinidad has "sleazy tourist art," and Saint John in the Virgin Islands has contemptuous baggage boys. However, he says that San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, is "plush," or wealthy in comparison. That is because this is the place where US influence is strongest.

Although San Juan appears to be inviting at first glance, the narrator points out that the captain warns passengers not to leave the plane, as if the United States fears that "too many desperate blacks" might disembark. As the plane goes up into the air again, the narrator sees contrasts between the rich and the poor. "U.S. patrol cars" guard the luggage of the rich. The condominiums of the wealthy have shacks belonging to the poor at their bases, and the Cadillacs of the rich pass by homeless locals with their belongings on pushcarts. In fact, the narrator points out that the seeming gold of Puerto Rico is actually "fool's glitter." This is a reference to iron pyrite, a cheap mineral that looks so much like real gold that it is often referred to as "fool's gold." The narrator reveals at the end that the trappings of the wealthy, such as cars and microchips, do not belong to the inhabitants of the island, but rather to the rich visitors from the United States.

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The ultimate meaning of "West Indies USA" is in the last three lines, however the entire poem contains the meanings that lead up to the final one. In other words, in "West Indies, USA," the journey is as important as the destination. This concept is mirrored in and parallel to the journey the poetic speaker takes within the text of the poem.

The poetic speaker is flying in a commercial airplane "Cruising at thirty thousand feet above the endless green" of the West Indies and Caribbean. The speaker enumerates the highlights he sees as they fly over on their way to their destination of San Juan, Puerto Rico. As the plane sweeps overhead to position for a landing at San Juan, the first two stanzas describe the marks of Westernization on the Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico and the West Indies and US Virgin Islands and British Virgin Islands: Puerto Rico, with San Juan, is north of the West Indies; Port-au-Prince is in Haiti, north of Puerto Rico; Picaro Airport serves Trinidad and Tobago in the British Virgin Islands to the east of the US Virgin Islands; St. John is the smallest of the islands in the US Virgin Islands to the south of Puerto Rico.

The next two stanzas criticize--and in so doing, denounce--the marks of "US regulation" and "barbed / electric fences around America's / back yard" with "US patrol cars" where "that vaunted sanctuary" echoes the motto of Liberty: "'Give me your poor...'." The last full stanza compares the two halves of San Juan's dual reality--and by extension, the Caribbean’s and West Indies’ dual realities--with its "shanties" versus "condominiums" and its "polished Cadillacs" versus "Rastas [Rastafarians] with pushcarts."

In this stanza also, Brown calls San Juan a place like "fool's gold," an allusion to the Gold Rush days when miners found fool's gold, or a mineral similar to gold that was not gold. He then introduces a metaphor that compares San Juan to a television that has "fallen / off the back of a lorry [large truck]," with "twisted wires" on the road. He ends by saying that despite the polished trappings of Americanism, the West Indies are "sharp ... and dangerous," but most of all, they "belonged to someone else." Brown ends with this dramatic metaphoric appeal to what one can only call true liberty, which is symbolized by Lady Liberty's torch and which would replace the hollow echo of "'Give me your poor...'."

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