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.
In the 12-poem sequence “In Italy,” the Ligurian coast is the occasion for this meditation on memory and absolution:
Things lose their balance
and totter from the small blows of memory.
You wait for revelations, for leaping dolphins,
for nightingales to loosen their knotted throats,
for the bell in the tower to absolve your sins
like the furled sails of the homecoming boats.
But he is at his most elegiac in writing of his native land:
. . . I would come back and forget the niggling
complaints of what the island lacks, how it is without
the certainties of cities,
. . . for the first star
for whom my love of the island has never diminished
but will burn steadily when I am gone.
In a 2002 interview with Glyn Maxwell, Walcott made these remarks about the state of contemporary poetry:
I think that at the rate things are going, poetry will lose its audience entirely. I think nobody will read it anymore because they don’t understand what the stuff is. I read it and I don’t understand it. . . . I read a lot of stuff by known names that I won’t mention, that I just say “this is incomprehensible to me and I’m not going to bother to strain to do it.” I don’t consider poetry to be a riddle, an enigma, or a formula. . . . I want to be able to understand what I’m reading and I now abandon anything I can’t understand.
In contrast to what seems to me to be the perversely willful obscurity of much of contemporary poetry—rendered all too often in language so sparsely minimalist as to suggest that the authors are allergic to words—Walcott revels in the expressive possibilities that English offers the astute poet, and in the language’s capacity for both rich metaphorical expression and historical and artistic allusion. Although he is acutely aware of British colonial history and its attendant dislocations and injustices—a legacy often thematized in his poetry—Walcott has no inclination whatever to throw off the poetic conventions of the colonizers’ language. Rather, he wisely appropriates those conventions to his own uses, freely plundering the metaphorical and prosodic resources that the English language offers, all to the great benefit of his readers.
. . . If it is true
that my gift has withered, that there’s little left of it,
if this man is right then there’s nothing else to do
but abandon poetry like a woman because you love it
and would not see her hurt, most of all by me;
so walk to the cliff’s edge and soar above it . . .
be grateful that you wrote well in this place,
let the torn poems sail from you like a flock
of white egrets in a long last sigh of release.
I share Walcott’s concern over the future of poetry, but it is evident that his own gifts as a poet have not withered but grown. And if—as the white egrets teach—“the perpetual ideal is astonishment,” then the sense of astonishment that pervades White Egrets offers lovers of fine poetry reason for hope.
Peter Lopatin teaches at the University of Connecticut at Stamford.