White Egrets by Derek Walcott reviewed

The first reviews of the recently published new collection of poems by Derek Walcott are out. Here is a look at some of them.

From The Guardian’s Observer magazine:

It is easy to guess why this might be. For in this collection, he is writing his own valediction (a risky undertaking). He wonders whether, at the age of 80, these poems might be his last. He explains that if he felt his gift had “withered”, he would “abandon poetry like a woman because you love it/ and would not see her hurt, least of all by me….” It is an uncomfortable expression of a painful thought but he pulls himself together to conclude: “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 relief “.

Egrets, in this collection, are multitaskers. Walcott even refers to himself as an “egret-haired Viejo”. And there is no need to shy away from the observation that egret is only one letter away from regret – Walcott does not resist the rhyme. His particular regret is about unrequited love – the keen humiliation of the old man who falls for a younger woman: “It is the spell/ of ordinary, unrequited love. Watch these egrets/

stalk the lawn in a dishevelled troop, white banners/ forlornly trailing their flags; they are the bleached regrets/of an old man’s memoirs, their unwritten stanzas./ Pages gusting like wings on the lawn, wide open secrets.”

Walcott is never fully available for comment; his heart is a million miles from his sleeve. Here, the egrets are again on duty to rescue him from himself and, for a second time, he likens them to poems. Actual and written landscapes frequently become hybrids in Walcott’s work – a stale device upon which he over-relies. Wriggling insects are “like nouns”, sunflowers are “poems we recite to ourselves”, barges “pass in stanzas along canals”. The breakers Walcott loves so much are trusted collaborators. They roll and smash their way into poem after poem. They shore up the verse. And birds become gracefully blameless alter egos.

We accompany Walcott through Europe and visit assorted hotels. At Durrants, in London, he drinks “hot, broadening tea” (not quite sure what that “broadening” means). In Amsterdam, canals bring calm (though the poem contains a howler – the local people are described as “Flemish”). There is a lovelorn sequence set in Spain and an amiable poem, set in the United States, in a barber’s shop, where the talk is of Obama.

What I enjoyed most about the collection was its occasional moments of lofty, salted beauty. The last – untitled – poem (printed below) has an aerial perspective: it is a farewell to a blue world. There is a sense that it has been written by a grand old man of the sea (with a Victorian command of the iambic pentameter). But what one must finally salute is the courage it takes to look failure in the eye as Walcott does (he is ruthless about his attempts at painting) and write on, regardless.

From The Economist:

MODERN poetry seems all too often to be associated with coy, small-minded ironists; teasing, finicky word players who often write in disappointingly short lines and seem to lack the ambition, the emotional force, the rhetorical reach, and even the range of subject matter of great poets of the past. Where to go these days to find the real thing?

Derek Walcott, born on the Caribbean island of St Lucia in 1930, and winner of the Nobel prize in literature in 1992, is one answer. Mr Walcott’s poetry has often possessed a clarity, an emotional forcefulness and a descriptive exuberance which has set him apart from most of the rest. His new book, “White Egrets”, is a magnificent, late achievement. As in “Omeros”, where local fishermen assumed the identities of heroes from Homer, Mr Walcott raises up the local—the sights and the sounds of his native St Lucia—until they become the stuff of epic. This is a book that luxuriates in description and the use of extended metaphor, as Homer did himself. The book explores the idea of self-renewal. It is an elegiac work—Mr Walcott was 80 in January—whose stance recalls two other great poets who raged against the dying of the light, Dylan Thomas and W.B. Yeats.

As with Yeats, the very possibility of death’s approach gives a new urgency and a new energy to the apprehending eye. Everything to be seen and heard becomes precious and surprising. The spirit of nature in Mr Walcott’s work is unquenchable, unkillable. Those white egrets, ever ministering presences, turn and return throughout the book, representing the brilliance and beauty of everything that is. They are also “bleached regrets of an old man’s memoirs”.

Although the book begins in St Lucia, it goes on to range widely around what he calls “old Europe”—Capri, Sicily, Andalucia and Amsterdam. The Europe of which Mr Walcott writes is both real and some fabled notion of the real, set apart, as much in its past as in its present. It is a place of the imagination as much as of the eye. Mr Walcott writes of places seen with an imagistic crispness, a snapshot-spareness; “fields of seaweed [that] reach as far as Guinea” is his view of the Atlantic Ocean. “If the soul ever rests, its next beach will be Dakar”.

As he starts to remember, he pays homage to some of the great European poets who have influenced his life and writing, especially Petrarch and the “symmetrical tension” of Dante. The phrasing in “White Egrets” has a mellifluous, rhapsodic quality throughout, hymning the beauty of the earth even as it recognises the precious fragility both of what it sees, and of the recording eye itself.

From The List:

Derek Walcott’s White Egrets was years in the writing, its publication coming after last year’s Poetrygate which resulted in his reputation smeared through allegations of sexual harassment. If there was one way in which Walcott could get the last laugh, this powerfully intense collection is it. Journeying through time and place, linked by motif – birds ruffle the pages throughout, ‘the sea’s repetition’ envelops – and separated by sequence, Walcott, now 80, mines the ageing process continually, directly and most evocatively via nature. Though phlegm and diabetes rear distastefully up, ‘on the shore of the mind seaweed accumulates’ and beauty is ‘hunched like a crumpled flower’.

Populated by elegies, White Egrets imparts a sense of keening for times and people past, but certainly doesn’t lack the political bite for which Walcott is known: the poem sequence in reaction to Obama’s presidency is here, as are melancholy jabs at the ‘new makers/ of our history … prophets of a policy/ that will make the island a mall’, and the Caribbean’s complex colonial legacy. A monument to home, honed carefully from the rough-hewn bricks of ‘rice bags’, ‘codfish’ and ‘mangrove marsh’, Walcott’s linguistic dexterity begs to be imbibed aloud.

Present and absolutely correct are the pert little flashes of internal rhyme and half-rhyme (‘wriggling’ ‘niggling’ ‘jigging’); the well-placed alliteration (‘years yaw like yachts’) and the lapping of a wave-like cadence. The whole collection hangs sublimely and will, like ‘coming to the same sea by another road’, reward revisiting.

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