Posts Tagged 'poetry of place'
A certain fatigue can set in when reading too much Derek Walcott at a go, like contending with a twice-too-large serving of boeuf bourguignon. The impression I sometimes get of him is that of a 19th century novelist who, do to a fluke paper shortage, decided to funnel his torrential sensibilities into poetry. Middlemarch filed into iambic pentameter. Or Moby Dick. Here are the opening lines of chapter 22 of his 1974 autobiographical poem, Another Life.
Miasma, acedia, the enervations of damp,
as the teeth of the mould gnaw, greening the carious stump
of the beaten, corrugated silver of the marsh light,
where the red heron hides, without a secret,
as the cordage of mangrove tightens
bland water to bland sky
heavy and sodden as canvas,
where the pirogue foundered with its caved-in stomach
(a hulk, trying hard to look like
a paleolithic, half-gnawed memory of pre-history)
as the too green acid grasses set the salt teeth on edge,
acids and russets and water-colored water,
let the historian go mad there
from thirst. Slowly the water rat takes up its reed pen
and scribbles. Leasurely, the egret
on the mud tablet stamps its hieroglyph.
There is an over-stuffedness about this, like the house of a lottery millionaire crazed for magnificence. The gift is formidable. I particularly love lines five through seven, “as the cordage of mangrove tightens/bland water to bland sky/ heavy and sodden as canvas,”. But by the time I reach line fourteen, with the historian gone mad from thirst, and realize I have been reading an actual sentence, I am quite out of breath.
V. S. Naipaul famously wrote, “History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.” Walcott writes as if his life depended on proving this statement false. He has made it his ultimate concern to carry The Caribbean before the world, as if shouldering its golden palanquin alone, saying “Here. Here is our indispensable presence.” But, like a skilled diplomat, he is as involved with the culture he is addressing as with the culture he is presenting. And so, a dynamic tension advances on his nerves, directing his pen (one almost imagines it a quill): On the one hand he has insisted that a life in St. Lucia is all his poetry requires. The narrator of his his 2004 book, The Prodigal, is told that Paris will change his life. His response:
I like my life.
You think here is enough?
For me it is.
Anyway I can see Martinique from here.
On the other hand, he has repudiated the “Black Word” movement, a stance towards writing espoused by the literary descendants of Langston Hughes, who believed it was critical for black writers to eschew the European tradition at every turn and blaze their own formal and linguistic trail. Walcott cites his own melting pot ancestry – Dutch and British as well as African – as evidence that Tennyson and Yeats are his inheritance as much as the African jungle. A lover of The Islands, it is Europe’s ear he cherishes.
Walcott’s childhood home on Chausse Road, Castries, St. Lucia
Sam’s question, “Why is Derek Walcott considered so great?” is now, I believe, stalking its answer: I would propose that this ambivalence – his home, a twenty-seven mile by fourteen mile reprieve from Caribbean waters, held up against the legacy of Auden – is at the core of his strength as a poet. Far from dividing his art, making him half-hearted in either direction, it has given him a singleness of purpose. His outsized ambition could perhaps best be described as a West Indian iteration of Stephen Dedelus’s famous battle cry near the end of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Such rhetoric is naturally vulnerable to grandiloquence, but if his poems occasionally succumb, it is the error of a gifted boy from the provinces singing too loudly in the King’s church. In this, it participates in a universal drama. It is one of the central tasks of our lives to press for certain reconciliations: between who we are and who we wish we were, what we are and what we could be, where we are, where we imagine it is better to be, and where, at last, we are most ourselves. And, in the course of these spiritual negotiations, can it be said we are, any of us, really alive if we don’t sing sometimes too loudly?
Here, from the thirteenth chapter of The Prodigal, is Walcott at his most moving . This passage comes after the narrator has journeyed to Europe, fast on the heals of self-understanding, and has returned at last to his island home.
So has it come to this, to have to choose?
The chafe of the breakers’ moving marbles,
their lucent and commodious statuary
of turbulent stasis, changing repetition
of drizzling spray that glazes your eyes
like the marble miracles of the Villa Borghese?
Do not diminish in my memory
villages of absolutely no importance,
the rattleing bridge over the stone-bright river,
un-ornate churches, chapels in the provinces
of light-exhausted Europe. Hoard, cherish
your negligible existence, your unrecorded history
of unambitious syntax, your clean pools
of unpolluted light over close stones.
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?
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