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.

The Saddhu Of Couva

When sunset, a brass gong,
vibrate through Couva,
is then I see my soul, swiftly unsheathed,
like a white cattle bird growing more small
over the ocean of the evening canes,
and I sit quiet, waiting for it to return
like a hog-cattle blistered with mud,
because, for my spirit, India is too far.
And to that gong
sometimes bald clouds in saffron robes assemble
sacred to the evening,
sacred even to Ramlochan,
singing Indian hits from his jute hammock
while evening strokes the flanks
and silver horns of his maroon taxi,
as the mosquitoes whine their evening mantras,
my friend Anopheles, on the sitar,
and the fireflies making every dusk Divali.

I knot my head with a cloud,
my white mustache bristle like horns,
my hands are brittle as the pages of Ramayana.
Once the sacred monkeys multiplied like branches
in the ancient temples: I did not miss them,
because these fields sang of Bengal,
behind Ramlochan Repairs there was Uttar Pradesh;
but time roars in my ears like a river,
old age is a conflagration
as fierce as the cane fires of crop time.
I will pass through these people like a cloud,
they will see a white bird beating the evening sea
of the canes behind Couva,
and who will point it as my soul unsheathed?
Naither the bridegroom in beads,
nor the bride in her veils,
their sacred language on the cinema hoardings.

I talked too damn much on the Couva Village Council.
I talked too softly, I was always drowned
by the loudspeakers in front of the stores
or the loudspeakers with the greatest pictures.
I am best suited to stalk like a white cattle bird
on legs like sticks, with sticking to the Path
between the canes on a district road at dusk.
Playing the Elder. There are no more elders.
Is only old people.

My friends spit on the government.
I do not think is just the government.
Suppose all the gods too old,
Suppose they dead and they burning them,
supposing when some cane cutter
start chopping up snakes with a cutlass
he is severing the snake-armed god,
and suppose some hunter has caught
Hanuman in his mischief in a monkey cage.
Suppose all the gods were killed by electric light?
Sunset, a bonfire, roars in my ears;
embers of brown swallows dart and cry,
like women distracted,
around its cremation.
I ascend to my bed of sweet sandalwood.

Derek Walcott

Writing That Stops Itself

Binge-reading Anne Carson continues with Men in the Off Hours. I’ve just spent a fortnight with Eros the Bittersweet, reading it three times back to back and then a fourth to transcribe large passages into my notebook. It is simply one of the most sublime books I’ve read, and certainly the finest on the nature of desire and love, and how each intertwines with the act of reading and writing.

I keep thinking of how to write about Anne Carson’s work which I might attempt when I’ve finished this reading of her oeuvre, but my reverence gets in the way of any critical insight. Michelle mentioned Carson’s idea of writing/language that “stops itself” which is evident even in the weaker works like Autobiography of Red, with unexpected images like “He switched on the light. He was staring at the sweep hand of the electric clock / on the dresser. Its little dry hum ran over his nerves like a comb.”

But the writer who comes to mind most immediately whose language constantly disrupts thought is Derek Walcott. Last night I reread his dazzling Omeros, and wanted to share these seven exquisite lines (I can’t preserve the spacing on WordPress):

We watched the Major lift
his wife’s coffin hung with orchids , many she had found
in the blue smoke of Saltibus. Then Achilles saw the swift
pinned to the orchids, but it was the image of a swift

which Maud had sown into the silk draping her bier
and not only the African swift but all the horned island’s
birds, bitterns and herons, silently screeching there.

There are, so far, many poems in Carson’s Men in the Off Hours that stop me dead. I have to put the book down and inhabit the silence that her work conjures.