Walcott’s “White Egrets”: The Birdwatcher’s song

Missang Oyongha review Derek Walcott’s new book:  

For the mind governed by lyricism, thought sooner or later resolves into poetry. Avid to the point of obsessed, gifted to the point of genius, Derek Walcott has staged a long march into the pantheon by melding his complex literary heritage and resonant thought into poetry of remarkable felicity and insight. Readers trawling for precedent or equal would be hard put to find another poet who both reveres the European tradition and affronts it with élan, who combines figurative flourish and polyglot exuberance with fidelity to form. White Egrets, his fourteenth volume, in his eightieth year, reasserts the point.

V.S Naipaul, waxing cynical even while seeming to praise, suggested in his 2007 memoir, ‘A Writer’s People’, that Walcott had exhausted by the 1950’s the imaginative ore from which he coined his coruscating early poetry. Vulgarising in typically eloquent fashion the fertility and verve of an artistic career that has issued in poems, plays and paintings, Naipaul portrays Walcott as famished for themes in 1960s Trinidad, refusing the lens of exile, lapsing into journalism, imitation and staleness.

But it is hard, regardless of Naipaul’s selective euphoria, to read Walcott’s canon without remembering Goethe’s phrase about the “repeated puberty” common to great writers whatever their age. Critics of Walcott’s poetry have found him too tinged with Auden or Lowell or Dylan Thomas, too rhetorical, too elegiac, too old-fashioned in his love of form, too macho, too hectic in his imagery, too eclectic in his allusions, too European in spite of his attachment to the Caribbean, offering ambivalence instead of certitude. Such criticism is of course a given of the artistic life, and every writer learns that to be explained is not necessarily to be understood. Walcott’s renown, like any writer’s, has thus been won because and in spite of his chosen styles and themes (or because and in spite of the themes which, as Borges insisted, choose the writer).

Love and sensuousness

It is all there in White Egrets: The love of people and art and natural life, the sensuousness (“The January sun spreads its balm / on earth’s upturned belly”) the synaesthesia, the concern with history, the lines that recall Larkin in their rhythmic ease and chagrin, lines whose beauty and force cannot be resumed by paraphrase. The Swedish theologian Nathan Soderblom, exploring creative genius as proof of the divine, wrote that “the artist knows how to erect a building using language as material”. Whatever their setting or local subject, the poems in White Egrets ultimately cohere because of Walcott’s’ sure and resonant voice, and his unyielding adherence to rhymed stanzas of irregular paragraph length. The initial impression, the final effect, is that of an edifice of sound and sense The egrets of the title sequence are delicate, almost angelic presences, appearing now and again as emblems of elegance and resilience. Walcott, with his knack for drawing parallels, writes: “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”.

An authorial quirk that nonplussed this reviewer is the absence of titles for some of the poems. Walcott elects to number all of them, titled or not, from one to fifty-four.

White Egrets is the testament of a life governed by art. The poems teem with allusions to Audubon, Bacon, Constable, Vermeer, among others. In poem 18, the poet addresses the subject of his own painting, noting, “A crudity that now showed so late/in life, when I had imagined I would master/portrait and landscape by this time.’’ Walcott’s painting, as he himself realises, is fated to remain in the shadow of his poetry. When an exhibition of his watercolours was held in New York in 2005, one art critic wrote that they seemed “more refuge than alternate aesthetic or ideological battleground” and did not rise to “the heights of his poetry”.

The painter’s eye

Nevertheless, Walcott’s imagery and sense of descriptive detail reveal that the poet’s hand is continually led by the painter’s eye. He has always been a deft conjurer of moods and scenes, able to evoke heartache and landscape with equal facility. In one poem he writes of how “Deferential rain/falls ceremonially on cafes and cobbles, /umbrellas blossom and a decent haze/glazes the streets where the cathedral wobbles in its reflection”. There is a cinematic, painterly quality to that last image, something of what was called, apropos of Larkin, an “imagist bias”.

Yet for all that Walcott can seem fascinable, breathless with see-and-tell about the charms of Amsterdam or Sicily, his visual elation is tempered throughout by inner distress. The distinct voice that we hear in the monologues of White Egrets is all at once self-deprecating, elegiac, haunted by the body’s decline, resigned to the imminence of death, full of remorse for failed romances, bearing the burden and solace of memory, moved by funerals and weddings and egrets, railing at his enemies.

These august feelings are expressed in a mode that has not been shorn of Walcott’s lexical swank, his lapidary way with words. In his Nobel lecture he refers to the poet who writes “in defiance of an imperial concept of language” part of the frisson of reading Walcott is the expectation of coming upon lines like these, from “Sicilian Suites”: “My memory’s nostrils prick at these odours/of burnt concrete, or tar, the smell of words”. In White Egrets his defiant diction mingles with but does not usurp the insistent note of sadness.

Natural candour

Walcott’s natural candour is given added poignancy by the intimations of mortality that shade the poems. He declares, with stoic aplomb, “I want the year 2009 to be 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 last year. In “Sicilian Suites” he offers a pained confession: “I know what I’ve done, I cannot look beyond/I treated all of them badly, my three wives”. Elsewhere he writes of a time “before I became more acquainted/with love and the suffering that love likes.” His fits of invective have often been aroused by the despoilers of Caribbean natural life. In “The Acacia Trees” he calls them “the prophets of a policy that will make the island a mall”. In his early tour de force, ‘Another Life’, he imagined Dantean tortures for these figures as well as for the philistines stifling cultural life. The angriest part of White Egrets comes in poem 46. Walcott’s’ subject is an unnamed “bastard”, and he deplores how “all the endeavours of our lives are damned to nothing by the tiring/catalogue of a vicious talent that severs/itself from every attachment, a bitterness whose/poison in praised for its virulence”. Could this be the same individual whom in “Hic Jacet”, from his 1969 volume, The Gulf, he decried as a “novelist praised for his accuracy of phlegm”? There seems to be a grudge constantly being kindled here. Is it someone we know?

Old age can be a fraught time for writers, fruitful for some, fallow for others. Yeats wrote his best poetry in old age. Roth (with his recent cascade of novels) Gordimer and Fuentes, for instance, have shown that the passage of time for a writer need not entail the waning of syntactic vigour or even the basic impulse to create. Martin Amis, reading John Updike’s final book of stories, and taking a dim view, maintained that “writers, as they age, lose energy (inspiration, musicality, imagistic serendipity) but gain in craft (the knack of knowing what goes where)”.

White Egrets surely gives the lie to any idea of lyrical and narrative lethargy on Walcott’s part. It is a touching poetic memoir, laying bare once again the workings of a perceptive mind applying itself with fluency and compassion to the task of showing what it means to be an individual implicated in history, love, and the mercurial regime of the senses.

The review appeared at http://234next.com/csp/cms/sites/Next/Home/5579528-146/story.csp

Image at http://birdwatchingalentejo.com/blog/

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