not book reports, not scholarly, not comprehensive

but           snapshots

reading walcott 2

3.  the sea’s scales stuttering in the sun

In the pitch black mornings of late December and early January, I fell in love with the bounty of Nobel Laureate poet Derek Walcott.*

Aloud, the complexity of his work –– the fabric of music and sounds, the underlying weave of history, the vermillion and gold strands of emotion –– is almost too much for my 71 year old human voice to carry, my ear to hear, my heart to let in. I am struck dumb by the person who has made these poems. I have listened to him on YouTube, his poetry read aloud in his Caribbean English. I read each of his poems, including the one below, and can parse it for rhyme and slant rhyme, for rhythm, for stand-out words and references,  for music which could be analyzed. But I don’t.

An essay by Pimone Triplett** on the sublime places Walcott’s work in the context of colonialism; how Walcott’s self-aware (and self as a highly educated colonial in the “Western” tradition) post-colonial use of romantic natural images lets us experience the exhaustion of the sublime; his sublime landscape as the object of exploitative newcomers. It is a subtly but vastly different take on colonialism than what I experience as the self-hatred and sourness of V.S. Naipaul.

The first seven poems stand grouped in a section titled “Bounty.” The ancient Greek Argo sails here and Captain Bligh’s “Bounty,” and paradoxically and intentionally, two European figures of poverty outside the bounds of “civilization:” Poor Tom, or Tom o’Bedlam (the persona assumed by Edgar in King Lear, an imposter of poverty and confusion) and John Clare (the son of peasants, a romantic nature poet, who spent the final twenty years of his life in an asylum). These two are imagined present in Walcott’s island landscape. This might be rich enough material, but the structure of this cloth is determined by Walcott’s mother, who has passed. This bounty is a cry of mourning.

I have seen and loved enormous articulate canvases brimming with strokes and pools of color which, if I were to examine a few isolated square inches, would dissolve into meaningless surface. I have seen and loved massive works which, reduced to small parts, resolve themselves into throbbing, exact, beautifully wrought miniatures. These enameled exactitudes laid one beside the other –– integral to a whole which may be harmonious, tangled, or even at war with itself, the small pieces in their individual unity placed beside others which might be expected to complement, but do not; others which might be expected to war against and contradict one another, but which are eerily at peace and “right” beside one another.

THANKSGIVING

Miraculous as when a small cloud of cabbage-whites

circles a bush, the first flakes of the season

spun over Brookline, on Beacon; the afternoon lights

would come on by four, but everyone said, “So soon?”

at the multiplying butterflies, though it was late November,

but also because they had forgotten the miracle,

though the trees were stricken and brief day’s ember

didn’t catch in their firewood; they did not recall

the elation of flakes and butterflies that their element

is a joy quickly forgotten, and thus with the fall

certainly gone, the leaves dimmed, their flares spent

the old metaphor whispered to everyone’s mouth

about age, white hair, the Arctic virginity of death,

that the flakes spun like ashes; but before my heart fled south,

my farewell confirmed by the signature of your breath,

white butterflies circling, settling in your hair, that could soothe

your closed eyelids trembling like cabbage-whites

on my island road, the sea’s scales stuttering in the sun.

(Derek Walcott)

* Derek Walcott, The Bounty, (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1998)

** Tobin and Triplett, Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play (University of Michigan Press, 2008)

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