[Originally published in the Review Literature and Arts of the Americas (November 2010)]
If you are an aging laureate poet, there are several ways to take a vow before that good night: You can whine in evident rhymes against the dying of the light à la Philip Larkin, carry prose to your deathbed as Neruda, or do as Derek Walcott does and reign and ride your horse, stately and dignified to that “green thicket of oblivion.” Although I tend to be wary of respectability in poets and of Walcott in particular, this well-tempered meditation on loss and time from the venerable master merits as many intelligent verse readers as there are mortal ones.
For those who are not familiar with Walcott, this collection of kin, but independent poems, can be a great introduction to the St. Lucian’s work. All the old topoi are there: history and willed amnesia, the boon of emptiness, lust and misogyny, the synesthesia of landscape and print, the American dance of old-world dancers, the mastery of enjambment and rhyme still classic and classical, in a language still resistant. And then some new plot twists for the cognoscenti: Although much older than most poets when they have their go at it, Walcott’s direct reckoning with mortality offers a refreshing sentiment absent from the rest: a titanic serenity.
Whence this serenity in a work rife with Yeatsean ferment? After an initial run over such sequences as the “Sicilian suite” or the “Spanish series,” the lusts of this “egret-haired viejo” excerpted from a “Latin American novel,” who “shakes with some invisible sorrow, some obscene affliction, and chronicles it secretly, till it shows in his face,” almost obliged me to dismiss the collection as the inadequate valediction of a Caribbean Aschenbach. Then I noticed a figure in the embroidery that made me reconsider. On from the first poem and steady to the end we find an intermittent, near pre-Socratic battle between stasis and flight,
- the white gasp of an egret sent
- sailing into the frame then teetering to rest
- with its gawky stride, erect, an egret-emblem!
Similar transitions overwhelm the collection until they become the dominant key, such as the opening line from “Forty Acres” (to Barack Obama), “Out of the turmoil emerges one emblem, an engraving—” or these ones from “Elegy” (to Aimé Césaire), “I sent you, in Martinique, maître,/the unfolding letter of a sail, a letter.” This is not a death in Venice after all. Quite the contrary, instead of degenerating, through this device our poet keeps his cool on the slippery slope of time by a constant re-staging of the scene of mortification and resurrection. His lust and desires become then another flavor of flight, bound too for the monumental white page of oblivion that in turn generates new text, new lusts.
- lies underneath it all though, the more surprising
- the death, the deeper the love, the tougher the life […]
- Your death is like our friendship beginning over.
As a young artist, Walcott promised that he would not make his life public “until [he had] learnt to suffer/In accurate iambics,” and this hard-earned victory over prurient exhibitionism transfigures into an elegant rejoinder to the poet’s inevitable end. It is no coincidence then the collection opens with a comparison between the terra-cotta warriors of Qin Shi Huang to “our” vows; nor that the book closes with an image of a page going “white again” as the book closes. In totem, White Egrets reads as the living monument to a life’s pledge to the taming of verse, and with it the fear of time itself. The redemptive serenity that radiates from the poems comes then not from the turbulence of a heart that for all intents and purposes remains pubescent right to the end, nor from its self-awareness, but from its obdurate insistence on boxing passion within accurate iambics, despite the vital resistance from memory and hope.
Kamau Brathwaite may as well have been referring to Walcott when he cryptically warned in a conversation we had last year that “the problem is boxes.” To this, Walcott would now retort, “the perpetual idea is astonishment.” In other words, Walcott is here acknowledging that the presence of the steady, of the fixed (i.e. the perpetual idea) is the source of our relationship to the new (i.e. astonishment). In a collection populated by elegies and burials, coming from a water-colorist who has made it his life’s second-calling to frame Caribbean escapes, the box or boundary exists not only as a porous foil to flux, but as the artist’s source of composure and delight:
- Accept it. Watch how spray will burst
- llike a cat scrambling up the side of the wall,
- gripping, sliding, surrendering; how, at first,
- its claws hook then slip with a quickening fall
- to the lace-rocked foam. That is the heart, coming home,
- trying to fasten on everything it moved from,
- how salted things only increase its thirst.
[This is a preprint of an article whose final and definitive form has been published in Review Literature and Arts of the Americas.]