That Astonishing Excavation: White Egrets by Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott, Portrait of Claudia in Yellow Armchair, 2005

In many of the poems in Derek Walcott’s White Egrets, it is possible to imagine the influence of post-impressionist painters with his intensity of attention for ordinary things: domesticities or the expression on a face:

Irises stipple the hot square in passing showers,
shadows pause in their casework, ornate balconies rust,
the sunlight of olive oil slowly spread in saucers
and loves that are hard to break have a screw crust.
Esperanza, cherished Esperenza!
Your lashes like black moths, like twigs your frail wrists,
your small, cynical mouth with its turned-down answer,
when it laughs, is like a soft stanza

That concentration on the essence of a plain object, without sentimentality, with such clarity, brings to mind painters like Bonnard or Degas, who would be capable of finding ‘the sunlight of olive oil slowly spread in saucers’. No surprise that Walcott is a painter as well as a poet (and a playwright).

White Egrets is his fourteenth collection, the work of mature Walcott, stripped of any complication and obscurity, though that may be a personal reaction after my recent immersion in the recondite poetry of Friederike Mayröcker and Paul Celan. What is immediately evident is the unpretentious lucidity of his verse. It is easy to take this for granted, but all the more necessary with these poems to slow down and reread. What is beneath the surface readability are a range of concerns and passions recorded with such heightened intelligence and objective observation.

Where there is melancholy in Walcott’s poetry, you feel the reverberations of a human struggling with the lived experience of love and ageing, rather than the vulgar professional unhappiness of a lesser writer.

If I fall into a grizzled stillness
sometimes, over the red-chequered tablecloth
outdoors of the Sweet Life Café, when the noise
of Sunday traffic in the Village is soft as a moth
working in storage, it is because of age
which I rarely admit to, or, honestly think of.
I have kept the same furies, though my domestic rage
is illogical, diabetic, with no lessening of love
though my hand trembles wildly, but not over this page.

What is left after reading these poems, something I will do often, is Walcott’s insistence that he cannot escape from himself. There is weight to this work, but an absence of dogmatism:

in March, you blaze in her praise like a sea-almond
the crab scrawls your letters then hides them,
certain that she would never understand.
How boring the love of others is, isn’t it, Reader?
This page, touched by the sun’s declining arc,
sighs with the same whinge, the Sonnets and Petrarch.

Walcott’s poems are best read in the original collections rather than in anthologies or journals. There is a cumulative effect, which gives the sense of bringing us closest to the poet’s intention.