By Derek Walcott
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 80 pages; $18
Division runs like a seam through the biography of the Nobel Prize-winning Caribbean-born poet Derek Walcott–his task has been to make it more boon than burden. He and his twin brother, Roderick, were born in 1930 in St. Lucia, a small link in the Antilles island chain, then part of the British West Indies. Walcott’s was a British education. The paucity of books in his native St. Lucia led, paradoxically, to an excellent literary education grounded in the heavily accented rhythms of Shakespeare, the Anglican hymnal, and the King James Bible.
Even as he pursued a college education, Walcott absorbed the parallel oral culture of the Caribbean, particularly audible in his plays, some of which adopt his native Creole dialect. His early poems register both geographical distances and the divisions within himself. In Crusoe’s Island (1965), he is both Robinson Crusoe and “Friday’s progeny,/ The brood of Crusoe’s slave.” His more recent poetry, especially the epic Omeros of 1990, wavers between an exile’s nostalgia and a cosmopolitan’s at-homeness in the world.
The title of The Bounty, Walcott’s first book of poems since Omeros, is a tangle of associations. Walcott is, first of all, acknowledging his 1992 Nobel Prize in literature, which (quoting the Irish Nobel Laureate W.B. Yeats) he calls ” ‘the bounty of Sweden.’ ” The prize paid for Walcott’s retreat on St. Lucia: “this house facing white combers that stands/ for hot, rutted lanes far from the disease of power.” Second, Walcott is playing off the celluloid The Bounty of Fletcher Christian and the “white God … Captain Bligh,” which rhymes in his mind with the ebb and flow of Caribbean tyranny and freedom: “The ribbed body with its cargo/ stalls in its doldrums, the God-captain is cast adrift/ by a mutinous Christian.” Finally–a major theme of this slim book–there is the recurring light of each Antillean day: “Bounty!/ 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.”
Despite its upbeat title, The Bounty is a book of elegies, a response to the “many deaths, nothing short of a massacre”–including the deaths of his mother and his close friend, the poet Joseph Brodsky–that Walcott has endured during his seventh decade. As he improvises on themes from the Western elegiac tradition, in which spring consoles for the losses of winter, Walcott finds that certain notes don’t sound in the tropics, where there is “no climate, no calendar except for this bountiful day.” And he is surprised, as elegists always are, “that earth rejoices/ in the middle of our agony.”
If Omeros, like its Homeric model, was a poem about fathers, The Bounty is Walcott’s mother book, an attempt “to draw the veiled figure/ of Mamma entering the standard elegiac.” The seven-part title poem is both an elegy for her and a poem about her island, Walcott’s “mother-country.” Its opening lines attempt to pry the beauty of the Antilles loose from advertising brochures, that false paradise in which, as Walcott wrote in his Nobel lecture, “the Caribbean is a blue pool into which the republic dangles the extended foot of Florida”:
Between the vision of the Tourist Board and the true
Paradise lies the desert where Isaiah’s elations
force a rose from the sand. The thirty-third canto
cores the dawn clouds with concentric radiance,
the breadfruit opens its palms in praise of the bounty,
bois-pain, tree of bread, slave food, the bliss of John Clare,
torn, wandering Tom, stoat-stroker in his county …
In those seven lines, freighted with the layered voice of European culture, Dante’s vision of paradise is invoked both explicitly, in the “concentric radiance” of the last canto of his Paradiso, and implicitly, in his braided terza rima (three-line stanzas, rhyming–loosely here–aba, bcb, etc.). That paradise is linked, in turn, with Isaiah’s prophecy of the imminent appearance of God in the desert, a promise confirmed, in the Christian view, by Jesus’ birth.
But Walcott also wants an outsider’s view on this exalted material, and he finds it in the 19th-century English peasant-poet John Clare, whom he makes into a stand-in for himself. Walcott twins Clare–who was driven mad by social injustice and consoled by the smallest beings in nature–with mad Tom, Edgar’s disguise in King Lear, who, like Clare, wanders the English countryside praising frogs and gnats: “I am moved like you, mad Tom, by a line of ants;/ I behold their industry and they are giants.” This couplet sends us back to an already famous passage in Omeros, in which women loading coal are compared to a line of ants–and so on.
In the rest of The Bounty, Walcott relinquishes such allusive density for the simple, history-erasing realities of life in the Antilles islands: the mango trees that “serenely rust when they are in flower,” the firefly that “keeps striking matches.” This culture-nature split corresponds, in Walcott’s personal mythology, with a split in himself: his European education and Caribbean childhood; his two homes, in Boston and St. Lucia; the two races, white and black, of his ancestry; and “the two languages I know–one so rich/ in its imperial intimacies, its echo of privilege,/ the other like the orange words of a hillside in drought–/ but my love of both wide as the Atlantic is large.”
T here’s a risk of sentimentality in Walcott’s praise of the Caribbean. A little pun in his Nobel lecture appears to gloss over, and even celebrate, the privations of underdevelopment: “In the Antilles poverty is poetry with a ‘v,’une vie, a condition of life as well as of imagination.” (Easy for him to say, with that Nobel-bought bungalow!) And again: “Visual surprise is natural in the Caribbean; it comes with the landscape, and faced with its beauty, the sigh of History dissolves.” Well, maybe the sigh, but not the fact of history, as Walcott knows quite well.
Such remarks, in any case, are part of Walcott’s own emerging self-definition as a writer. In recent years he has increasingly aligned himself not with British or American poetry but with a multilingual and multiracial Antillean literature that includes such writers as Jean Rhys, Lafcadio Hearn, Saint-John Perse (another Nobel winner), V.S. Naipaul, and C.L.R. James. These writers, in Walcott’s view, have managed to see the islands as they are–in all their “visual surprise”–and not as some fragment or falling-off from European achievements. Walcott’s faith, as expressed in The Bounty, is finally a painter’s faith, that the poet’s job is “to write of the light’s bounty on familiar things.”
Walcott trained to be a painter–like his schoolteacher father, who died when Walcott was a baby–and The Bounty is his most painterly book, in method and theme. If The Bounty is low on autobiographical detail, or the dailiness of this poet’s life and travels, it is rich in acts of looking. Walcott’s keen eye is drawn repeatedly to the complementary blues and oranges of his native landscape: “there, against the indigo-blue Santa Cruz/ mountains, the immortelle ignites its branches with orange/ blossoms, however briefly, while the incredible blue is/ as indifferent as ever.”
The Bounty is studded with the names of painters, especially those with a link to the Caribbean. Willows in Amsterdam bud “like crowds in Pissarro along a wet boulevard’s branches.” “Manet in Martinique” evokes ghosts of French culture inhabiting the island. Pissarro, though Walcott doesn’t mention it, was a native of the small Jewish community in St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, while the 17-year-old Manet traveled the Caribbean as a sailor in training. One of the strongest poems in the book, the that begins “I cannot remember the name of that seacoast city,” evokes Monet as Walcott reconstitutes, with the help of one of his own watercolors, a dimly remembered stippled seascape in northern France.
Wistful, wry, at times valedictory (the Monet poem playfully offers the poet’s own epitaph), The Bounty is one of Walcott’s most inviting volumes, incorporating some of his best work since The Star-Apple Kingdom of 1979. In his pleasure in the sheer variousness of paradises found and lost, Walcott glories in what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called “dappled things.”