The Magazine

A Summing Up

Derek Walcott is more than a ‘poet of exile .  .  . of place.’

Jun 28, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 39 • By PETER LOPATIN
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White Egrets

A Summing Up

Audubon’s ‘Snowy Heron or White Egret’ (1835)

Photo Credit: Corbis

by Derek Walcott
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 96 pp., $24

Since the publication of his first major collection of poetry, In a Green Night (1962), Derek Walcott—who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992—has steadily enriched the world of Anglophone poetry with volume after volume of effulgent verse. In this latest collection, he continues to delight, in poems that range widely over the landscape of human experience, speaking in a voice that is at once valedictory and elegiac. The themes of desire, memory—both personal and cultural—regret, and the power of the natural world, are all to the fore in this volume. But perhaps most powerfully present is the overarching theme of human finitude and the ever-present specter of death. With consummate craftsmanship, Walcott applies his mastery of metaphor and poetic line to an exploration of these intertwined themes. Whereas in previous works he has sometimes shown a disposition to metaphorical excess—like the virtuoso musician who pushes his cadenzas a bit over the top simply because he can—in White Egrets, Walcott speaks with more restraint. Whether this is by design, or because of the natural evolution of his artistic temperament, the work is the stronger for it.

Although Walcott is often referred to as a “poet of exile”—in view of his continuing attention to the historical themes of colonialism and cultural deracination in his native Caribbean—the characterization is somewhat misleading insofar as it encourages the cramped view of his work that emerges when seen principally through the narrow lens of “postcolonial” literary theory. Walcott’s gifts as a poet are so prodigious that repeated invocation of the “poet of exile” moniker suggests an oversimplification of a body of work of great depth and scope, one which surely encompasses—but just as surely extends well beyond—the political and historical. Put simply, there is a great deal more going on in the poetry of Derek Walcott than the mournful lamentations of an exiled son.

The poems in White Egrets are those of a poet now in his eightieth year—and ailing—whose reflections on death and loss form the leitmotif of the work as a whole:

I reflect quietly on how soon I will be going.

I want the year 2009 to be as angled with light

as a Dutch interior or an alley by Vermeer,

to accept my enemy’s atrabilious spite,

to paint and write well in what could be my last year.

Seemingly beyond death, the “elegant,” “sepulchral,” “immaculate,” and “impeccable” white egrets (accorded their own eponymous, eight-poem section) are exemplars of perfection, standing in for all that has been true and good in the poet’s life. Of a “spectral white,” they are “seraphic souls” which—as if existing sub specie aeternitatis—“stalk through the rain / as if nothing mortal can affect them.”

They sometimes serve as an occasion for the poet’s self-exhortation:

Accept it all with level sentences

with sculpted settlement that sets each stanza,

learn how the bright lawn puts up no defences

against the egret’s stabbing questions and the night’s answer.

They also serve to instruct: 

We share one instinct that ravenous feeding

my pen’s beak, plucking up wriggling insects

like nouns and gulping them, the nib reading

as it writes, shaking off angrily what its beak rejects,

selection is what the egrets teach

on the wide open lawn, heads nodding as they read

in purposeful silence

a language beyond speech. 

Very much a poet of place, Walcott has lived and traveled far afield. Indeed, one might more accurately say that he is a poet of places, whether Italy, Amsterdam, Sicily, Spain, London, Manhattan—each of which is accorded its own series of poems—and of course, his native St. Lucia. In “Sicilian Suite” he speaks regretfully of loves long gone:

.  .  . she whom I had killed

with my caustic jealousy, my commonplace love-hatred,

my pathetic patience, my impotent impatience,

my infatuation or whatever it’s called. .  .  .

Then he muses bitterly on the still-powerful tug of sexual desire, seen as something pathological and unseemly for a man of his years:

I’ll tell you what they think: you’re too old to be

shaken by such a lissome young woman, to need her 

in spite of your scarred trunk and trembling hand.

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