White Egrets by Derek Walcott
In White Egrets, Derek Walcott’s new collection of poems, the last section of “In the Village” begins, “If I fall into a grizzled stillness / sometimes… it is because of age / which I rarely admit to, or, honestly, even think of.”
It’s a bit funny, coming across these lines halfway through the book. The poems of White Egrets read like those of a writer obsessed with old age and the failings that come with it. In one poem, the narrator -- the first-person Walcott figure -- grapples with his memory. He pleads “help me, Muse” in a recollection of “the yellow fading hotel, and now, Christ! Her name?” In another, he is haunted by Death euphemized as “the postman, the scyther, Basil, whatever you call him -- a cyclist silently exercising on Sunday.”
Meditations on love and lust, nature and the supernatural, and a complicated relationship with New World and Old World cultures are the foundation of Walcott’s oeuvre. These themes appear in White Egrets, the Nobel laureate’s first collection of new work since 2004’s The Prodigal. But they are now channeled through a body with “lungs that rattles, eyes / that run” (“Barcelona”), or so the now-80-year-old poet would have you believe. In White Egrets, Walcott’s silent reaper lurks at the edge of each poem, in their subjects as well as in their framing. Of the individually dedicated poems in the collection, one is an elegy and another in memoriam, for Walcott’s fellow Caribbean poets Aimé Césaire and John Hearne; if still alive, they would be not much older than him.
But however much truth there may be in the poems’ age-related curses and neuroses, the poems that question the poet’s skill are some of the most deftly crafted. Perhaps this is Walcott’s clever joke -- or an extended exercise to explore a subject rarely admitted to or thought of.
Consider how Walcott addresses two of his characteristic subjects. In his work, a fierce love of literature has always paralleled a lust (and love) for women. Critics have argued that literature gets more respect from Walcott than any female. By White Egrets, both poetry and women are slipping from the old man’s grasp, and Walcott makes a rueful union of the two. In poem number 32 in the collection (which begins “Be happy now at Cap, for the simplest joys—”), the narrator says:
If it is true
that my gift has withered, that there’s little left of it,
if this man is right then there’s nothing else to do
but abandon poetry like a woman because you love it
and would not see her hurt, least of all by me.
But Walcott’s writing shows little sign of withering, though it’s now more quietly contemplative than the railing young man of “A Far Cry from Africa” (1972). The symbolic literary suicide that ends “Be happy now at Cap…" is as romantic and startling an illustration of death as a Tiepolo painting.
[S]o walk to the cliff’s edge and soar above it,
the jealousy, the spite, the nastiness, with the grace
of a frigate over Barrel of Beef, its rock;
be grateful that you wrote well in this place,
let the torn poems sail from you like a flock
of white egrets in a long last sigh of release.
The tenderness of the language belies a writer acknowledging his mortality. Talk that his ability is now suffering is perhaps a mask for another concern: a realization that that there will never be enough time to write. Walcott tucks clues of this into other poems: “My veins bud, and I am so / full of poems, a wastebasket of black wire” says the voice in “In the Village,” who is only kept from writing because someone has removed his typewriter from his desk.
White Egrets can also be read as the twilight work of a writer who has now answered his career-long questions about empire and colonial history—or, at least has achieved something close enough to resolution. The voice who cried, “How can I face such slaughter and be cool? / How can I turn from Africa and live?”, unable to reconcile his love of Africa and of conquering Britain, isn’t completely tempered (“A Far Cry From Africa”). But, now “reflect[ing] quietly on how soon I will be going,” he pursues peace with a complicated heritage (“In Amsterdam”). Looking at “rubicund Flemish faces” in Holland, he wants to repaint them and claim them as his own. “I feel something ending here and something begun,” he says.
The 54 poems in the collection take the reader from Walcott’s native St. Lucia, to New York City and Western Europe and back. Walcott may have reconciled his relationship with the West, but White Egrets ends in the Caribbean. In a poem that begins “No opera, no gilded columns, no wine-dark seats” -- chronicling the “banalities” of European culture that are absent in the islands -- the parting images of a harbour town gives another hint that Walcott is not yet done producing. The poem ends, “So much to do still, all of it praise.”
White Egrets by Derek Walcott
Farrar, Straus and Giroux