White Egrets: Poems
Faber and Faber, 2010
One year on from the absurdities of the 2009 Oxford professor of poetry furor, Derek Walcott remains one of our most capable, eloquent poets. A new collection, White Egrets, finds the 80-year-old St Lucian in fine form, combining an energetic delight in poetic form with a knack for conveying elegiac weariness. These are poems of strength and intelligence, elegantly constructed and adroitly observed snapshots of contemporary life. But this is also a work that reveals a Prospero-like personality, the record of a stoic individual determined—perhaps understandably—to put up walls between himself and the world.
There is a double pull at work in the collection, underlined early on in a passage from “Sicilian Suite”:
There never really was a ‘we’ or ‘ours';
whatever each enjoyed was separate:
a drizzle’s drift, the slant of arrowing showers
on a hot road, on roofs, made them elate,
but with a joy defined by separation.
This exuberant delight in separateness is the hallmark of many of the poems contained here. “I’m content as Kavanagh [the great Irish rural poet] with his few acres”, Walcott writes elsewhere in the book, “for my heart to be torn to shreds like the sea’s lace, / to see how its wings catch colour when a gull lifts”. Such intense insularity is all the more striking because it appears in a poem with an almost embarrassingly square-toothed title (“The Lost Empire”), a poem in which lyrical expressionism sits at odds with sharp commentary on the legacy of European imperialism. Indeed, Walcott seems eager always to be moving between political and personal dimensions; he can veer suddenly from talk of “Conradian docks” and “old English forts” to withdrawn, neo-symbolist evocations of the natural world, sometimes within the space of a single line. But this tension—between urbane worldly engagement and fierce romantic escapism, even outright solipsism—is what makes White Egrets such a compelling and enjoyable work.
There are a number of poems that deal with the “we” Walcott appears to jettison in “Sicilian Suite”. “Forty Acres”, written for Barack Obama, is optimistically public-minded, with its field that “lies open like a flag as dawn’s sure / light streaks the field and furrows wait for the sower” (note how Walcott’s Kavanaghian acres have been supplanted here by an expansive open field). A variation on the same theme, “44” is a moving record of 21st-century black community and consciousness, a portrait of a Caribbean barber expectantly “waiting for Obama”:
Polo is young, black, bald under his baseball cap
but more than a barber he is delicate, adept
and when I leave his throne, shake shorn hair from my lap
I feel changed, like an election promise that is kept.
Such sober social realism contrasts nicely with the Sturm und Drang interludes in poems like “The Lost Empire”. Similarly, another socially engaged piece describes a dockworker who has lost “a leg to rum and diabetes”:
You would watch him shrink
into his nickname, not too proud to beg,
who would roar like a lorry revving in the prime of his drink.
Elsewhere, in “The Acacia Trees”, there is commentary on the “doomed acres” (that word again!) of St Lucia’s beaches, “where yet another luxury hotel will be built / with ordinary people fenced out”. At such moments, the enclosure of physical space is, briefly, viewed in conventionally pejorative terms, and Walcott seems comfortable to play the communitarian spokesperson, stepping out of himself to survey his surroundings with alertness and verbal precision. There is no doubting the sincerity of these mimetic pieces, nothing at all opportunistic or forced about them, and Walcott’s ability to convey political motifs with such technical élan and economy is considerable. Perhaps the collection would have benefited from more poems in this mold.
While Walcott can document St Lucian spaces with remarkable pathos, he is also an eager internationalist. White Egrets takes in a remarkable range of locales—Barcelona, Sicily, London, Stockholm, New York, Amsterdam—and in this respect Walcott shows himself to be a worthy inheritor of literary modernism’s preoccupation with exile and voyages of exploration. But this is no mere trite inversion of Conrad; in fact, in his geographical restlessness, Walcott seems closer to sophisticated modernist emigrés like D.H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound. Traces of Pound are also evident in Walcott’s palpable New World obsession with European culture. A long sequence of poems titled “In Italy” is littered with allusions to Canaletto, Caravaggio, Renaissance princes and churches (Uccello, van Gogh, Bacon, and El Greco crop up elsewhere). The predilection for reeling off long lists of high cultural references can seem tokenistic, as in the more abstruse moments of high modernism, though it does make for a colourful backdrop. Much time is spent eating ice creams in Florence, reading the morning papers in London, and listening to the “soft enquiries of the cocktail piano” in the bar of the Grand Hotel, Brussels. The purview of White Egrets is expansive and wide-ranging, even if the depiction of such rarefied spaces has an air of gratuitousness about it.
Yet time and time again, White Egrets finds Walcott departing from this cosmopolitan frame, shrinking into himself like that alcoholic, diabetic dockworker. The birds of the work’s title are a recurring motif, and they seem to stand for something like an acceptance of the limits of communication, emblems of ineffability like the mysterious, beautiful subjects of W.B. Yeats’s “Wild Swans at Coole”. As a line in the title poem makes clear, the egrets reflect back at Walcott a “purposeful silence, a language beyond speech”, and it is this sense of a resounding, conclusive silence that is most characteristic of the collection as a whole. In the same poem, the birds are described as being both “spectral” and “sepulchral”. It is a telling elision, and one that captures the note of portentousness to be found in many of these works. There are references to “crypts” and “seraphic souls”, and some frank valedictory admissions: “I know what I’ve done, I cannot look beyond. / I treated all of them badly, my three wives”.
Also in the title poem, Walcott expresses a wish to arrive at a “peace / beyond desires and beyond regrets”; and it is difficult finally to resist the conclusion that he has, to paraphrase Geoffrey Hill, written an elegy for himself. With desire and regret exorcised, all that remains is serene, magnanimous, poetry:
Some friends, the few I have left,
are dying, but the egrets stalk through the rain
as if nothing mortal can affect them, or they lift
like abrupt angels, sail, then settle again.
White Egrets is the work of a poet journeying all over the planet and ultimately turning his back on it with a good deal of dignified grace. While it would be tempting to draw some rather obvious parallels between this attitude and the march of events over the last two years, the truth is that Walcott probably isn’t too bothered to have missed out on a quasi-public appointment with a meagre stipend in a land-locked English town. The mood of sombre resignation that permeates many of these poems seems to have a lot more to do with an elderly writer’s desire to retreat into the island of himself, and to derive endless inspiration, as Walcott has always done, from the surrounding sea.
Alex Niven is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.