Elegies at ebb tide from St Lucia

Paula Burnett hears a Nobel laureate's songs at twilight; The Bounty by Derek Walcott Faber & Faber, pounds 7.99

Derek Walcott's epic poem Omeros and his verse play The Odyssey are hard acts to follow. With The Bounty, he turns away from Homer as the poems awake increasingly internal echoes. Finely, quietly crafted, this collection threads images like beads on a necklace. Its quest is the "awe of the ordinary" - a very Walcottian phrase, with its pun and its paradox, marrying the mundane to the magical. It regularly strikes home: a St Lucian woman sings with a "voice like rain on a hot road". Walcott's work has a signature, recognisable from just a phrase, like that of a great composer.

This slim volume is deceptive. Like Dr Who's Tardis, its modest exterior hides immensities. It deploys again the long lines of Dante's terza rima, as in Omeros, and sonnet-like poems, as in Midsummer. These metres enable Walcott to breathe deeply in unhurried lines. You can never guess what a poem will open out into. As one puts it, "at the end of each sentence there is a grave/or the sky's blue door".

The Bounty moves easily around the world, in and out of cultures and histories in a way we have come to expect of Walcott; but above all it slips us into feelings like a glove. Coming home to the Caribbean, for instance, prompts the recognition of "shape/and shadow so familiar, so worn like the handles of brooms/in old women's hands".

Many of these are haunted poems. The dead tread their pages lightly, alive again. Walcott's mother is commemorated in the title poem. Others recall the lengthening list of lost friends, "nothing short of a massacre". In consequence, the aged and small creatures can have "no calendar except for this bountiful day".

Walcott starts from Dante's hymn to the Virgin-Mother, with which the Paradiso ends. The bounty is also nature's. But this is Captain Bligh's Bounty, too, bringing breadfruit seedlings like manna to feed Caribbean slaves. Walcott embroiders ideas: food; the palm-shaped leaf; the necessary mutiny of Mr Christian; his mother's devout faith; mad John Clare praising the minutiae of nature; the heroism of the ants' collective effort; and the heroism of the black people's story.

Languages, too, have histories of loss and survival. He watches St Lucia's particular patois fade, a loss to which his own work in English contributes. But these poems hum with an elegiac sadness as the ground-bass of joy. Walcott is unsurpassed at sounding both notes at once: "Great bursts of exaltation crest the white breaker, /deep-drawn as the sighing shale, as the heart's salt history".

There are no fireworks here. The tone is sombre, veined with a sparkle like granite. And these are very wet poems, full of weather and tears, but also the "bliss" of streams and the fertile damp of Clare's East Anglian fens.

Walcott's familiar confessional voice now says calmly that "the only art left is the preparation of grace". His faith is less orthodox, more tested, but he remains convinced that "the soul's Australia is like the New Testament/ after the Old World, the code of an eye for an eye". Few poets can meld metaphysical, moral and political registers with such compressed energy. These are also lonely poems, echoing Oedipus and Timon, invoking the defiant castaway: "All I require is an acre of sunlight and a salt wind."

Occasionally the tone is strained, seduced by its own sonority. Though demanding, the poems share their bounties best when their music is most stripped and simple. They may not appeal to the impatient. They may not appeal particularly to the young. But for those who know what loss is - and, as he reminds us, there is no loss without love - the book will yield a slow, rich juice from its presses.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent