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
Saturday 12 July 1997
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.
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