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
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence