Monday, 29 March 2010

Walcott's 42

This poem, from Walcott's new collection White Egrets (2010; which I haven't yet seen) was published ahead of time. I found it on the Repeating Islands blog:
This prose has the gait of a mule urged up a mountain road,
a slope with wild strawberries; yes, strawberries grow there,
and pines also flourish; native trees from abroad,
and coffee-bush shining in the crisp blue air
fanning the thighs of the mountains. Pernicious ginger
startles around corners and crushed lime
leaves its memory on thumb and third finger,
each page has a freshness of girlhood’s time,
when, by a meagre brook the white scream
of an egret beats with the same rhythm as crows
circling invisible carrion in their wide dream;
commas sprout like thorn-bush alongside this curved prose
descending into some village named Harvey River
whose fences are Protestant. A fine Presbyterian
drizzle blesses each pen with its wooden steeple over
baking zinc roofs. Adjectives are modestly raised in this terrain,
this side-saddle prose on its way to the dressmaker
passes small fretwork balconies, drying clothes
in a yard fragrant as Monday; this prose
has the sudden smell of a gust of slanted rain
on scorching asphalt from the hazed hills of Jamaica.
It's dedicated to Lorna Goodison, and the prose praised is that of her From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People (the Jamaican town of Harvey River is namechecked there in line 13, there). Part of this is by-the-numbers Walcott: the bright colours, the slightly studied, or mannered, pungent richness, the zinc roofs (he might reply, of course, that there just are lots of zinc roofs in the West Indes). The 'strawberries; yes, strawberries' seems to me a little lax, too; and the whole middle section tumbles a little confusingly from 'girlhood’s time' to 'white scream' to 'egret' to 'crows circling invisible carrion' (why invisible?) to 'dream'. But the ambling line, linked to the closely observed three-quarter-rhyme rhymescheme (Jamaica/dressmaker; ginger/finger; road/abroad) give the poem a pleasing solidity. And writing a poem to praise the success of another human being is as old as Pindar.

What I like the most, though, about this poem is the way it rather deftly plays with the trope of writing as actual landscape; the way thorns are like commas, and not the other way about; the pun on 'pen'; the italic drizzle at the end. I like this, though some critics do not. Here's Kate Kellaway in the Observer:
Walcott is never fully available for comment; his heart is a million miles from his sleeve. Here, the egrets are again on duty to rescue him from himself and, for a second time, he likens them to poems. Actual and written landscapes frequently become hybrids in Walcott's work – a stale device upon which he over-relies. Wriggling insects are "like nouns", sunflowers are "poems we recite to ourselves", barges "pass in stanzas along canals". The breakers Walcott loves so much are trusted collaborators. They roll and smash their way into poem after poem. They shore up the verse.
Maybe it does get tiresome at length, but I'd say there's something simple and effective about this recurring Walcottian trope.

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