Derek Walcott, White Egrets, #2

31 August 2010, 9:04 am

Your two cats squat, heraldic sphinxes, with such
desert indifference, such “who-the-hell-are-you?” calm,
they rise and stride away leisurely from your touch,
waiting for you only. To be cradled in one arm,
belly turned upward to be stroked by a brush
tugging burrs from their fur, eyes slitted
in ecstacy. The January sun spreads its balm
on earth’s upturned belly, shadows that have always fitted
their shapes, re-fit them. Breakers spread welcome.
Accept it. Watch how spray will burst
like a cat scrambling up the side of a wall,
gripping, sliding, surrendering; how, at first,
its claws hook then slip with a quickening fall
to the lace-rocked foam. That is the heart, coming home,
trying to fasten on everything it moved from,
how salted things only increase its thirst.

(from White Egrets, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010)


Walcott on Omeros

10 December 2008, 9:35 pm

Via Rethabile at Poéfrika from Lesotho-France, from Geoffrey Philps all the way in Jamdown, an audio file of Derek Walcott reading from and talking about Omeros for BBC World Book Club.

While Walcott sometimes misses the point of a question or his humour falls flat, it is still a pleasure listening to him, where the crack of age adds another dimension to his voice as he insists that Omeros is not a re-writing or a re-framing of Homer in the Caribbean. For me the power of Walcott’s poetry has always been its associative abilities, drawing connections through association, insinuation, rather than any direct line. To him the relationship between Omeros and Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey is one of association, allusion, as it should be with literary ancestors.

My favourite bit is when Walcott mentions his morning ritual when writing:

I live near the sea… on the edge of the beach. And I would get up in the morning – in those days I smoked, thank god – I would get up, and I knew I was getting up not really to work, but to smoke and have a coffee…

You can find the audio file here, where Geoffrey Philps also has links to an extended section on Walcott, one a piece on why Philps would trust Walcott more than his pastor.

Codicil – Derek Walcott

6 October 2008, 10:27 am


Schizophrenic, wrenched by two styles,
one a hack’s hired prose, I earn
my exile. I trudge this sickle, moonlit beach for miles,

tan, burn
to slough off
this love of ocean that’s self-love.

To change your language you must change your life.

I cannot right old wrongs.
Waves tire of horizon and return.
Gulls screech with rusty tongues

above the beached, rotting pirogues;
they were a venomous beaked cloud at Charlotteville.

Once I thought love of country was enough,
now, even if I chose, there’s no room at the trough.

I watch the best minds root like dogs
for scraps of favour.
I am nearing middle

age, burnt skin
peels from my hand like paper, onion-thin,
like Peer Gynt’s riddle.

At heart there’s nothing, not the dread
of death. I know too many dead.
They’re all familiar, all in character,

even how they died. On fire,
the flesh no longer fears that furnace mouth
of earth,

that kiln or ashpit of the sun,
nor this clouding, unclouding sickle moon
whitening this beach again like a blank page.

All its indifference is a different rage.

Derek Walcott, The Castaway and Other Poems, 1965

V.S. Nightfall 2.0

10 June 2008, 9:46 pm

At the recent Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica, Derek Walcott reportedly had an audience riveted when he lashed out at Naipaul in the form of satirical verse. Here is an extract from the poem, “The Mongoose”*, grabbed from The Guardian and where you can also read a report on the event by Daniel Trilling:

I have been bitten, I must avoid infection
Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction.
Read his last novels, you’ll see just what I mean
A lethargy, approaching the obscene.
The model is more ho-hum than Dickens;
The essays have more bite, they scatter chickens
like critics, but each stabbing phrase is poison
Since he has made that snaring style a prison.
The plots are forced, the prose sedate and silly
The anti-hero is a prick named Willie
Who lacks the conflict of a Waugh or Lawrence
And whines with his creator’s self-abhorrence.** (The Guardian, 1 June 2008)

* As the reporter points out, the Mongoose was brought to the Caribbean from India, by the British.

** The extract is probably as transcribed by the journalist; my version differs from The Guardian’s in that I have rearranged line-breaks according to the rhyming couplets.

And here’s a different extract, pulled from the New Statesman, but as reported by the same Daniel Trilling:

So the old mongoose, still making good money
Is a burnt out comic, predictable, unfunny.
The joy of supplements, his minstrel act
Delighting editors, endorsing facts
Over fiction, tearing colleagues and betters
To pieces in the name of English letters.
The feathers fly, the snow comes drifting down,
The mongoose keeps its class act as a clown.
It can do cartwheels of exaggeration;
Mostly it snivels, proud of being Asian;
Of being attached to nothing, race or nation.
It would be just as if a corpse took pride in its decay
After its gift had died and off the page
Its biles exude the stench
Of envy, “la pourriture” in French.
Cursed its first breath for being Trinidadian,
then wrote the same piece for the English Guardian.
Once he liked humans, how long ago this was
The mongoose wrote “A House for Mr Biswas”. (New Statesman, 29 May 2008)

The press was actually scooped on this story by a blogger in Kingston, Jamaica, Annie Paul. You can listen to a podcast of Walcott’s interview with Kwame Dawes and reading poetry at the Calabash Festival at Open Source.

Walcott at New Yorker

16 May 2008, 7:35 am

A friend sent me a notification of a new poem by Walcott, published in the New Yorker:

“In Italy”

Casting at the castaway

5 February 2008, 2:40 pm

I’ve been trawling the web for reviews of Walcott and just to see whether there was any new poetry by him, despite him having intimated in The Prodigal (2005) that that would be his last book. It had slipped my mind that it was his 78th birthday on 23 January.

Edward Byrne, of One Poet’s Notes and editor of the Valparaiso Poetry Review (Indiana, US) has noted Walcott’s birthday with an overview of the poet’s career. There is also a review of The Prodigal, which has refreshed my interest in and obsession with Walcott, brought home by the flashes of quotation from Byrne’s post. Unlike Mary Jo Slater, who finds The Prodigal structurally weak, Byrne is far more in tune with the book-length poem, finding a structure that gravitates, among other things, around the death of Roderick Walcott, the poet’s twin.

For those looking for an introduction to Walcott’s poetry, there is a new Selected Poetry by Walcott, edited by Edward Baugh and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2007), superceding in depth that abysmal 1981 Heinemann selection by Wayne Brown and, naturally, going beyond Collected Poems: 1948-1984 (1986), which ends with a selection from Midsummer (1984). For the new Selected Poetry Baugh will have had The Arkansas Testament (1987), Omeros (1990), The Bounty (1997), Tiepolo’s Hound (2000) and The Prodigal (2005) from which to draw.

If Walcott has indeed stopped writing poetry, perhaps 2010, his 80th year, might be an appropriate year to publish a new volume of collected poetry, including every single published poem from 25 Poems (1948, self-published when Walcott was 18 years old) up to and including The Prodigal. A nice companion would be a volume of collected plays.

Well, at least that is what I would like, so that I can fill out the gaps in Collected Poems, which is a selection by Walcott himself. The single volumes from which these selections are drawn are now out of print (this is what I infer from the websites of Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US and Faber & Faber in England) and difficult to come by. Walcott’s earlier books are also now collector’s items and go for record prices: GBP 19.00 for Midsummer, GBP 37.00 for The Arkansas Testament, and, for The Star-Apple Kingdom… GBP 99.00!

The cynic in me naturally believes that no such comprehensive volume may be in the offing until after Walcott has shuffled off to the great whelk-gathering in the sky, when a Complete Works proper can be assembled at handsome profit perhaps to publishers.

White Scars

30 August 2006, 7:00 pm

Denis Hirson, White Scars: On Reading and Rites of Passage (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2006)

As Hirson mentions in his brief Afterword, White Scars started out as the ‘critical and reflective’ component to a Creative Writing Ph.D. and this partly explains the writerly feel of the book. It is a writer reflecting on other writers, a genre with many excellent practitioners (I think of Joseph Brodsky’s essay on Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’, Derek Walcott’s reviews of Lowell, Larkin and others). Hirson’s book falls into this tradition: it is literary, reflective, investigative, curious about himself in the world around him, without losing sight of the world as it is around him. Read the rest of this entry »

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