Taking my cue from Mark Strand, I decided I would read through Walcott’s Selected Poems, a volume I had been picking at for some time. For a while, it went everywhere with me. I remember – it was sometime during the summer of 2008 – sweating by the window of one of the coffee shops I sometimes frequent. Management at this particular spot kept the temperature in the room roughly equivalent to the inside of the dessert case, so it was either freeze or sweat. A friend stopped in and sat with me for a few minutes. He picked up my Walcott and said, “Ah. Derek Walcott. I suppose all dutiful poetry readers have an obligation to read him at some point.” This is how he talks.
“He’s fantastic.” I said, more out of defense than conviction.
I quickly assessed that it would not be worth the effort to speak as a grown-up would and ask him why he felt so archly dismissive of Walcott. So, the conversation shifted to other, transient subjects, quickly assuming the cadences of our familiar banter. As amusing as this can sometimes be, I often find it wearing. In such irony-burdened badinage, in which words are ramped up to mean more than they say, one usually ends up saying so much less than on one means. On this particular afternoon, stewing by the window past which joggers paraded, watching the breath of the other patrons condense in the artificially frigid air, feeling slightly resentful at my friend’s infringement on my limited time, I found myself growing less and less inclined to continue what was passing for a conversation. When at last he left, I again opened my book and read the following:
I sang of quiet Achille, Afolabe’s son,
who never ascended in an elevator,
who had no passport, since the horizon needs none,
never begged nor borrowed, was nobody’s waiter,
whose end, when it comes, will be a death by water
(which is not for this book, which will remain unknown
and unread by him). I sang the only slaughter
that brought him delight, and that from necessity –
of fish, sang the channels of his back in the sun.
Emily Dickinson wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” But some poetry has more the effect of a masterfully placed acupuncture needle, causing a gentle but decisive release in the flow of one’s energy. Often, in the moment, there is not much more to say about it than this. One can return to it, examine how such an effect was arranged for by the poet. How such an effect is actually achieved, if it is, may be an even more interesting question, though ultimately less literary, for it pertains to how a reader receives the text. What, as it were, he does with the poem after he’s eaten it. The power of poetry – when it has power – has more to do with one’s digestion than one’s frontal lobes.
Reading this, the opening lines of the final chapter of Omeros, I felt just such a release, hardly noticable, though noticable still, a slackening, if for only that moment, of all that was forced and artificial and taxing in life. Here was language that was direct, rippling with meaning, meaning, but no doubleness, almost without irony.
Almost. It isn’t apparent at first. Then one hears the summoning bell of the sixth and seventh lines. The poet asks his reader to come to for a moment. We’ll return forthwith to the list, the elegiac enumeration of the elements of this “song”. But here, he nudges the reader out of the poetic dream, briefly, and just enough to become aware of reading a book. This one, without Achille’s drowning in it. Achille – You weren’t thinking he isn’t real, were you? Time enough to fall back on that position after putting it down and returning to your coffeehouse window, your companions, unknown and freezing, and whatever upcoming tasks you believe are limiting your time. – Achille never will. And you may infer from this that he will never read any book. Partly because he is the poet’s creation, that about which he “sang”. But also because he created him as a contrast to the reader, whose circumstances as a reader, especially a reader of poetry, would be unimaginable to him.
Derek Walcott is, perhaps more than any other major living poet, obsessed with how place impacts identity. His poetic voice is endlessly questioning a certain concept of self (and self-worth) by drawing the subject’s surroundings, often sun-shot and Caribbean, but sometimes alien (read “European”), close about him, carefully examining what he’s been left with, what he’s been left without, and how this positions him in the world. It could be partly this about Walcott that bothers my dismissive friend, as he has little patience for people who didn’t somehow spring from Zeus’s head “knowing who they are.” To allow such uncertainty to remain a poetic goad across a lifetime he would, I suspect, see as pure silliness. Add to this the distant thunder of Walcott’s anger, the condensation of moral reckoning that forms around the edges of his rhetoric, and you’ll see my friend hightailing it out of there. Even in this fragment, every word is Janus faced, pointing at the subject, inviting the reader’s love, and pointing back at the reader, subtly requiring something in return: Name everyone you know who hasn’t ridden an elevator. Don’t leave anyone out. In Achille’s world there is no need of a passport, unlike in the divided and anxious world you likely inhabit. If you are reading this poem you are well educated, and therefore almost certainly wealthy enough to have been served by wait staff, possibly even by waiters with Achille’s skin color and social standing. He will not have been among them. And now, let’s talk about slaughter. By the end of the poem, we stand, not accused, but confronted. The affection we have for this character – he repudiates our ready admiration – does not come free. It asks a price not so glibly obviated by liberalism or “social responsibility”. Rather, like all great poetry, it asks that we take our own measure. “Quiet Achille,” he calls him. How quiet, I wonder, are you? How quiet I?