From here to eternity
POETRY: THEO DORGANreviews White EgretsBy Derek Walcott Faber and Faber, 89pp. £12.99
DEREK WALCOTT was born on the island of St Lucia in 1930. He began publishing at 18, had his first “proper” book in 1962 and has gone on to publish 14 collections of poems, eight volumes of plays. In 1992, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature – for work, as the citation had it, of “exceptional luminosity”.
He was educated in the English of Shakespeare, in the classics as filtered through a colonial education system, and has spent his life negotiating that treacherous ground between the parole of native inheritance and the langue of high culture as defined from Europe.
Walcott became an inveterate traveller, restless, unsettled, struggling to reconcile island and Empire, the native self and the enchanted orphan, but has long since made “his own poetic domain” as Heaney says, has found Homeric grace and space in his home island and a language that shifts as theme and subject demand from the tight cadences of Shakespeare to the lope, dip and bittersweet insight of patois.
James Dickey has praised his “fearless language”, and Joseph Brodsky, more perceptively perhaps, finds in the poems “a sense of infinity embodied in the language”.
White Egrets, his latest collection, has an extraordinary luminosity, is fearless in theme and language and is aimed, straight as an arrow, at the blue bounds of eternity. I do not think even the magisterial Omeros has more scope in it, more grace or humanity, more relish in language and its powers, more redemptive clarity, simplicity, humility. This, by a large measure, is the best work Walcott has done.
The sea is everywhere in the book, the sea that brings everything into the islands – trouble and promise, books, language and terror, and the sea that carries away – to praise and honours in foreign cities, love found and lost in far off places. The deep boom of the surf is heard in poem after poem, a long, withdrawing roar, a sibilant moonlit murmuring, an ever-present reminder that time is fleeting, that we have our human span in the face of eternity. The man who speaks thoughtfully here stands face to face with his own imminent death – and is moved to pity, forgiveness, regret and, almost shockingly, pure adult gratitude for his life. Death is never far away in these poems, the death of a hopeless love in Siracusa, the death of a marriage, marriages, the deaths of friends, loved ones, neighbours, the death of a way of life – all these have their acknowledgement here, but the most numinous death of all, calmly regarded, neither spurned nor invited, is the author’s own oncoming death.
In the title poem, he writes:
With the leisure of a leaf falling in the forest, pale yellow spinning against green – my ending.
The egret, that beautiful bird, is his figure for all that is and has been good in this life he loves – hieratic, impeccable, sure in its movements, perpetual in its attention. We should, Walcott says,
Accept it all with level sentences
with sculpted settlement that sets each
learn how the bright lawn puts up no
against the egret’s stabbing questions and
the night’s answer.
He sees that
. . . the egrets stalk through the rain
as if nothing mortal can affect them, or they
like abrupt angels, sail, then settle again.
And his heart lifts with them, into a space that is earth-drenched with happiness and sorrow and, at the same time, the domain of the seraphic. Who would have thought it? There has been more than a hint of the brawler in Walcott down the years, a drawling pugnacity, a quickness to anger with Empire, its wounds and its pretensions, and there has been a schooled and learned love poet, too, wounded and wounding, yearning, but the note of acceptance in this book sounds deeper and richer than anyone might have expected:
Sometimes the hills themselves disappear
like friends, slowly, but I am happier
that they have come back now, like memory,
There are genuine sorrows here: Sicilian Suite for instance, is an unsparing account of a doomed, one-way voyage into love unreturned, but grief is balmed with salvific insights that “will burn steadily when I am gone”.
The book is beautifully orchestrated, a handful of images – white breakers, yachts nodding in their marinas, tall cedars rising out of their own dark – recurring over and over in the calm unshirking attention of the poet’s regard. Here is a man on the clifftop of his own disappearance, unbowed by the prospect of eternity, of losing this one and only life with its freight of sorrow, its cargo of joy, still lifting his sail to the music of what happens. I do not think I have read, for many years, a book so redolent of our beloved earth. Each life touched on in these poems is given with grace, accorded its proper respect; it is, I think, this impulse to bless others that allows him to forgive himself and others, to respect and be grateful for the life he has himself been given. Nearly 50 years ago, Walcott wrote, in The Harbour:
The fishermen rowing homeward in the dusk
Do not consider the stillness in which they
Out of the long stillness of a considered life in poetry comes a conclusion as unexpected as it is electric:
The perpetual ideal is astonishment.
Read this, and be astonished.
Theo Dorgan’s most recent collection of poems, Greek, has just appeared from Dedalus Press