Derek Walcott’s poems may be unpeopled, but they are far from empty, says Sarah Crown
During last year’s scrabble for the Oxford poetry professorship, while the rest of the world smacked its lips over the tangle of lurid allegations and accusations, Derek Walcott stayed silent. This collection marks his first public statement since the events of last spring. Those in search of a comment or comeback, however, will be disappointed: if these poems prove anything, it’s that Walcott is well past the point of having something to prove. From the first page of this superb meditation on death, grief and the passage of time, it’s clear we’re in the presence of a master.
There are no experiments here, no failed attempts. Walcott’s subjects (nature, ageing, the colonial legacy) are familiar. His poems are pitched throughout in the same fluent first person, and formally they’re neat: enjambment and internal rhyme criss-cross the surfaces like ropes. But while in another poet such uniformity might look like laurel-resting, in Walcott’s case his ability, and his confidence in it, are such that embellishment would feel superfluous. In these exquisitely poised and potent poems, language stands as the thinnest possible lens between the poet and the world he describes: the mechanics of poetry are enacted on the landscape, making composition as effortless as speech, as breath. “My craft and my craft’s thoughts make parallels / from every object,” he says. “The word and the shadow of the word / makes a thing both itself and something else / till we are metaphors and not ourselves . . .”
These parallels are keenest in the birds that flock through the collection. In particular, Walcott relies on the egrets of the title – “abrupt angels”, beautiful and vital – to stand for everything that matters to him as he enters his ninth decade. Their “electric stab” is a cipher for mental acuity; their voraciousness echoes his own (“We share one instinct, that ravenous feeding,” he explains, “my pen’s beak, plucking up wriggling insects / like nouns and gulping them”). Finally, and crucially, their ubiquity becomes a buttress against mortality. “Some friends, the few I have left,” he sighs, “are dying, but the egrets stalk through the rain / as if nothing mortal can affect them.” It’s a necessary defence: time is Walcott’s theme here, as so often before, but as he moves towards the end of life, it appears to be slipping from him. Days are always hurrying to evening; “morning shadows . . . lengthen across the lawn”. Faced with a sun-splashed landscape, his eye is drawn ineluctably to the shadows, which can be dangerously beautiful (“palms droop in the sun like palanquins / with tigerish shadows under them”) or straightforwardly metaphorical, as in his rich, Dylan Thomas-esque imagining of the moment of his own death, when “my shadow passes into a green thicket of oblivion”.
His establishment of a living, breathing, resonant landscape as a bulwark against this “green thicket” makes that landscape’s uninhabitedness all the more obvious. “Here’s what that bastard calls ‘the emptiness'”, he snaps in a poem towards the end of the collection; one of the few in which, ironically, the presence of another is truly felt. In this case, the “bastard” is Walcott’s fellow Caribbean Nobel laureate, VS Naipaul, with whom he maintains a lively feud.
The quotation comes from an essay in which Naipaul refers to Walcott’s poetry as “unpeopled”: reading this collection, you can see his point. Friends, when they surface, tend to be dead or dying – names at the top of elegies. Women are visible, but curiously absent: “chattering girls” who flit across his vision like the birds; just as lovely, but of no greater consequence. In “Sixty Years After”, one of the few poems in which a woman appears to be invested with a personality, Walcott encounters the girl whom he pursued half a century earlier, sitting in a wheelchair in an airport lounge. They sit together, “crippled, hating / time and the lie of general pleasantries”, apparently sharing a moment of intellectual sympathy. Ultimately, though, Walcott reduces even her to a mirror for his self-perception. “I thought”, he says, that “as the fire of my young life [she] would do her duty / to be golden and beautiful and young forever.” The failure, it seems, is hers.
While this Victorian-like neglect of women throws up, at points, a barrier between poet and reader (or this reader), for the most part his casual misogyny reads as precisely that: anachronistic, and therefore ignorable. Nor, contrary to Naipaul’s insinuation, does the “emptiness” of Walcott’s poems lessen their impact; if anything, it enhances it. Without the clutter of people, his landscapes sing. In his Caribbean poems, all is motion – shadows, trees, birds and water, ebbing and flowing. In the sublime “Spanish Series”, on the other hand, where streets are “shot / and halved by the August sun” and “the sunlight of olive oil slowly spreads in saucers”, he summons a hot, stark landscape, everything knife-edged under pitiless light, line-endings sharp as shadows’ borders. “A train crosses the scorched plain in one sentence,” he says of a trip across the Andalusian basin, in one of the collection’s finest poems. “In the cork groves shadows rhyme with their sources. / No name except Andalusia would make sense / from the train window of horses and galloping horses.” Only in the final couplet does the horses’ galloping extend the line, persuading us to see them keeping pace with us, running alongside. Walcott is a genius of place, and this collection highlights his power of witnessing.