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Unphantasmal Peace

A review of "The Bounty" by Derek Walcott.

Doug Griffin / Getty

In 1759, Edward Young offered some “Conjectures on Original Composition” in a letter to his friend Samuel Richardson. Young recognized that his contemporaries often suffered from a sense of having come too late--after history, as it were--and thus being incapable of rivaling the classical writers, who wrote when history was young and vital. But he denied that modern men really had come too late for greatness:

But why are originals so few [today]? Not because the writer’s harvest is over, the great reapers of antiquity having left nothing to be gleaned after them; nor because the human mind’s teeming time is past.... Tread in [Homer’s] steps to the sole fountain of immortality; drink where he drank....

Young’s optimistic advice proved hard to follow; and English-speaking poets (and critics) have only grown more obsessed with the sense of their belatedness. In much of the English and American poetry of the last two centuries, there is a growing sense that history is getting farther and farther away, that experience is contracting and the significance of thoughts and deeds diminishing. And the feeling of attenuation is as strong today as at any time since Young: a period that can find no more positive appellation for itself than “postmodern” is not one that will try to tread in Homer’s steps.

But there is a poet now writing who has been intensely interested in the struggle with history, and with Homer. Even when Derek Walcott is not actually transposing the Iliad to the voluptuous shores of the Caribbean, he is urgently concerned with the past and his place in it. As an English poet who is racially and geographically separate from the English-speaking main, he has been forced to confront the problem of tradition and originality much more sharply than most writers of his generation. This has sometimes been a source of great bitterness to Walcott. But it has also been the root of his most enduring subject: the relation of the West Indies, his native place, to history.

Walcott has never tried to escape the fact that the islands are, in the most neutral sense of the term, lacking in History with a glamorous (and ominous) capital “H”: they lie outside the grand progression of classical and Renaissance Europe, their culture and language imported, not to say imposed. What has troubled him, for most of his career, is whether this deprivation is to be mourned or celebrated. For many years he seemed committed to celebration; but he was always too honest to conceal his desire to mourn.

In one sense, being outside History is a gift, because it allows the poet to escape the curse of belatedness. This is the note that Walcott struck in 1992 in his Nobel lecture, “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory”:

Visual surprise is natural in the Caribbean; it comes with the landscape, and faced with its beauty, the sigh of History dissolves. We make too much of that long groan that underlines the past.... The sigh of History rises over ruins, not over landscapes, and in the Antilles there are few ruins to sigh over....

The absence of the classic makes the Antilles a richer place. In the islands, Edward Young’s advice is easier to follow. The Caribbean writer is innocent of ruins (though not of ruin); and Walcott has often seen himself in the role of Adam, naming things for the first time.

But this situation is also a hardship for the poet, for the simple reason that serious poets are besotted with allusion. Allusion is the most concrete way for a poet to assert his fellowship with the illustrious dead, with the language to which he has fallen heir; and such an assertion is at the heart of all poetic ambition. Some of the best poems in English, from Lycidas to The Waste Land, are heroic feats of allusion. And allusion requires, not landscape, but ruins (“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”); that is, it requires History. Walcott may proclaim the vigor and the beauty that accompany the naivete of the Antilles; but he cannot help feeling the loss of allusive possibilities that naivete brings with it.

Thus the subject of History never comes up in Walcott’s poetry without a strong note of ambivalence and longing. We see this tone clearly in a poem like “Names”:

and children, look at these stars

over Valencia’s forest!

Not Orion,

not Betelgeuse,

tell me, what do they look like?

Answer, you damned little Arabs!

Sir, fireflies caught in molasses.

Orion and Betelgeuse, the allusive classical names, are denied to the children out of a sense that they are false, imported; yet the children’s spontaneous answer, “fireflies caught in molasses,” is ignoble in comparison. The way Walcott can come out with that vicious, racially tinged “damned little Arabs”--he is both the chiding schoolmaster and the insulted student--speaks volumes about his bitter predicament; he is drawn toward both the teacher’s knowledge of, and the child’s freedom from, formal names.

Walcott’s long struggle with Greece is part and parcel of this tortured situation. Walcott has tried mightily to fulfill Young’s ambition, to walk with Homer on original ground; the Caribbean, in his poetry, is often a version of the Aegean. Indeed, his epic poem Omeros (1990) is nothing less than an attempt to recast the Iliad on St. Lucia, with the implication that the Caribbean is no less a setting for noble, heroic action than Greece. Yet, at the same time, Walcott’s very insistence on the parallel implies a recognition of Homer’s priority, which dashes the idea that the Caribbean is pristine territory, free from History. And Walcott has always been too honest and conscientious a poet to smooth over this ambivalence. His own lines from “Another Life,” written almost 20 years before Omeros, sum up the sources of his epic ambitions with the coldest insight:

Provincialism loves the pseudo-epic, so if these heroes have been given a stature disproportionate to their cramped lives, remember I beheld them at knee-height....

The real pathos of Walcott’s situation is that he cannot win the battle with History in the way he attempted in his Nobel lecture. This is partially because writing in English commits him to the history of English, to allusion, to tradition. (Even when Walcott writes bitterly about England, he is tender toward English.) But it is also because poetry itself, regardless of its language, thrives on self-consciousness, and history is a great, even primary source of self-consciousness. History gives places, people, and relations a content that the mind can react against; and poetry properly describes the mind’s reactions against things. Without history, there is little for poetry to describe except, as Walcott says, “landscape.” In fact, landscape is a crucial category for understanding Walcott. One of the things that makes a Walcott poem instantly recognizable is its natural ground: the star-apple and the frangipani, the ocean and the cloudless sky, the sugar-cane and the tropical rains. This is, in part, because Walcott is a painter as well as a poet--as he recounts in “Another Life,” his first artistic ambition was to be a great painter--and he has a heightened sensitivity to the appearances of things, to compositions, colors, patterns. Yet Walcott is also drawn to the description of landscape because it is a statement of minimal historical content (though one’s language of description is a historical choice, a political choice, over which Walcott has agonized).

These twin imperatives toward landscape--the sensual and the historical, the phenomenal and the political--have had a formative impact on Walcott, not just on his subject matter but also on his verse technique. One of Walcott’s most favored methods is accumulation, the characteristic mode of visual description: he places details together to build up a total picture. This can be literally a picture, a description of a tableau, as in “Sainte Lucie”:

from these sun-bleached villages

where the church bell caves in the sides

of one grey-scurfed shack that is shuttered

with warped boards, with rust,

with crabs crawling under the house-shadow

where the children played house;

a net rotting among cans,

the sea-net of sunlight trolling the shallows ...

One feels that this scene was conceived visually, rather than linguistically; the only rhyme in the passage is a visual rhyme (the net and the sunlight). And this additive technique can be found even when Walcott is not describing a picture:

Strange, that the rancour of hatred hid in that dream

of slow rivers and lily-like parasols, in snaps

of fine old colonial families, curled at the edge

not from age or from fire or the chemicals, no, not at all,

but because, off at its edges, innocently excluded

stood the groom, the cattle boy, the housemaid, the gardeners,

the tenants, the good Negroes down in the village,

their mouths in the locked jaw of a silent scream.

This is social, not visual, observation; but the verse still acts like a description, adding on new details in each phrase. One effect of this can be to make the sentence run rampant over the line; and in Walcott’s earlier poetry, especially, one often feels frustrated at the unpredictability of verse that is at odds with its syntax.

These, then, are the recurrent issues in Walcott’s poetry, all related: history, landscape, technique. All of them surface again in his latest collection, The Bounty. Here, again, we have poems that describe the look and feel of the Caribbean; poems that half-praise and half-lament the poet’s cultural situation; poems whose long lines buck against the controls of rhyme and meter. But what is most striking in Walcott’s book is the way in which all of these issues are transformed, suffused with a new calm and detachment. Walcott has always had the gift of seeing himself clearly. This is a gift that tends to produce irony, and his early poetry is often sardonic; but now the irony has mellowed into something larger and more rare. If irony is the voice of the young man, seeing himself and recoiling at the sight, The Bounty is the poetry of an older man, one who knows his character and situation and has come to accept them.

The first thing one notices about The Bounty is the form. Except for the title poem, a sequence in memory of the poet’s mother, the poems here are laid out in solid blocks, with long lines and a very faint ABAB rhyme scheme: they are attenuated sonnets. The use of long lines and half-rhymes (sometimes not even half: he rhymes “Alighieri” with “allegory”) is not new in Walcott, and even this semi-sonnet form was used in Midsummer, which appeared in 1984. Midsummer contains some of Walcott’s best writing, but there his sonnets sometimes had an oppressive echo of Robert Lowell’s:

In the other ‘eighties, a hundred midsummers gone

like the light of domestic paradise, the hedonist’s

idea of heaven was a French kitchen’s sideboard,

apples and clay carafes from Chardin to the Impressionists ...

These are Lowell’s abstractions (the eighties, the hedonist) and overpacked pentameter lines. In The Bounty, however, the pentameter line is burst, the sentences spill over the line-breaks, and the rhythm and diction are original:

The teak plant was as stiff as rubber near the iron railing

of the pink verandah at whose centre was an arch

that entered a tenebrous, overstuffed salon with the usual sailing

ship in full course through wooden waves, shrouds stiff with starch ...

Here, again, there is the danger of wandering syntax; the sentence clashes with the line, and it is easy to get lost if one tries to sound the line-breaks too heavily. But Walcott is able to coax out of these edgy, long lines a marvelous, propulsive rhythm:


In the bells of tree-frogs

with their steady clamour

in the indigo dark before dawn,

the fading morse

of fireflies and crickets, then light on the beetle’s armour,

and the toad’s too-late presages,

nettles of remorse

that shall spring from her grave

from the spade’s heartbreak.

And yet not to have loved her enough

is to love more,

If I confess it, and I confess it.

Only a few poets at any given time are capable of a distinctive style, much less a distinctive mature style; and Walcott’s mature style, as evolved in Midsummer and further perfected here, is his best.

It is a mature style, even a late style, because Walcott, who is now 67 years old, is beginning to face the problems of age: death, but also the leave-taking from the world that a good death demands. Like much earlier Walcott, The Bounty has poems that address the problem of language, colonialism, and History; but there is also a new temper here, for which these problems seem less urgent, more like familiar and necessary limitations that Walcott has learned to live within. The death of his mother and of his friend Joseph Brodsky, who is also the subject of an elegy here, are reminders of Walcott’s own mortality:

I imagine my absence; the fatigued

leaves will

fall one by one into soundless brown

grass in drought

and the raw ochre patches where lilac

laces the hill

and the shadows returning exactly

some May as they ought,

but with the seam of air I inhabited


This resignation does not feel forced or rhetorical. It is genuine, and it seeps into almost every poem in The Bounty. In the title poem, Walcott considers what must become of his mother after death:

Nothing is trite

once the beloved have vanished;

empty clothes in a row,

but perhaps our sadness tires them

who cherished delight;

not only are they relieved of our

customary sorrow,

they are without hunger,

without any appetite,

but are part of earth’s vegetal fury;

their veins grow

with the wild mammy-apple,

the open-handed breadfruit,

their heart in the open pomegranate,

in the sliced avocado;

ground-doves pick from their palms;

ants carry the freight....

and here at first is the astonishment:

that earth rejoices

in the middle of our agony,

earth that will have her

for good: wind shines white stones

and the shallows’ voices.

What he is really describing here is the beloved dead being eaten by plants and insects; but he can accept this fate as “for good” in the sense of “positive” as well as “permanent.” Or consider the following passage, where Walcott’s resignation takes on a more somber tinge:

[the waves] are bringing the same old news,

not only the death-rattle of surf

on the gargling shoal,

but something further than the last

wave, the smell

of pungent weed, of dead crabs whose

casings whiten,

and further than the stars that have

always looked too small

for those infinite spaces (Pascal) that

used to frighten.

I am considering a world without stars

and opposites. When?

It is the “when?” that brings to this speculation the right note of doubt and urgency--Walcott is both questioning the possibility of “something further than the last wave” and asking, impatiently, for it to come at last.

This poetry of acceptance, of the facing of last things, would be remarkable from any poet; but from Walcott it is even more so, since it represents, at last, a victory in his war with History. Walcott’s perpetual dilemma with regard to the Caribbean is occasionally present in this volume: “here we have merely a steadiness without seasons/and no history, which is boredom interrupted by war,” he writes in one poem. But more often the problem subsides into the background, and Walcott writes about themes that know no geography: death, resignation, loss, the limits of art. Many of Walcott’s poems have spoken of the time just after he returns to the islands from abroad, but here the anxieties of that situation are being let go:

Can you genuinely claim these,

and do they reclaim you

from your possible margin of disdain,

of occasional escape ... ?

... Yes, they reclaim you

in a way you need not understand:

candles that never gutter and go out

in the breeze,

or tears that glint on night’s face

for every island.

The need for explanation falls away, the emotion remains. This coming to rest in the facticity of things is often used in contemporary poetry as a dodge, an escape from philosophical and psychological difficulty; but for Walcott it is more than that. It is not a means of attaining satisfaction, but a resigning of the hope of satisfaction. It is the breakthrough to wisdom.

This tone, the distinctive tone of The Bounty, emerges most clearly in the middle of the book, in the sequence “Six Fictions” and the following poems. In these poems, Walcott just about acknowledges that the terms of the Caribbean debate are no longer real to him:

He mutters to himself in the old

colonial diction

and he heard how he still said home

not only to appease

his hope that he would be there soon,

but that he would come

to the rail of the liner and see the

serrated indigo ridges

that had waited for him ...

There is no such person. I myself

am a fiction,

remembering the hills of the island

as it gets dark.

In those last two lines, Walcott moves beyond the colonial problem, acknowledging that the persona which sees a combat between “home” and exile is “himself a fiction.” He is at home everywhere, or possibly nowhere; he is a man speaking to men.

This is the central attainment of The Bounty. (It has been building in Walcott’s last two books of lyric verse, in Midsummer and The Arkansas Testament, of 1987, in some ways Walcott’s best book.) And it is an attainment that has wider application than Walcott’s own predicament as a “colonial”--a predicament that few of his readers share. For what it shows is that Walcott has overcome the problem of belatedness. He has not solved it, but it has ceased to be a problem. The obsession with History cannot be conquered; in this it is like all fears and impotencies, which turn direct assaults into aggravations of the problem. Rather, it yields to a general growth in wisdom, which allows the poet to see it as less central, less hindering an obstacle. In showing us this growth, which can appear here as a mysterious grace, Walcott offers all who come late a means of overcoming, or forgetting, that fact.

Consider, for instance, the problem of naming, which for Walcott has usually been linked to the problem of History--again, the Caribbean poet comes before history, and must name things for the first time. But in The Bounty the same theme has become both more general and more mysterious:

your devotion

to pursue those bleached tracks that

disappear into bush, in the rain--

something of weight in the

long indigo afternoon,

the yam vines trying to hide

the sugar-wheel’s ruin;

something unconnected, oblique as if,

after the motion

of history, every object we named

was not the correct noun.

Here the task of naming is not political, it is almost mystical. The sense that everything in the world is misnamed, slightly obscured, is more a statement about reality and language than a statement about history. The hold of history on the spirit has been broken. Walcott has been, and will remain, a poet of the Caribbean; but at last his Caribbean has become a place in which a human life is lived, not a collection of satisfactory or unsatisfactory conditions for that life. What is most rewarding in The Bounty is the sight of a poet assured enough to address the largest themes without self-consciousness or hesitation, with all his powers. The steps are Walcott’s, not Homer’s; and that is why Walcott finds himself, in this book more than in any previous book, treading on classic ground.