An ordinary miracle or two

When a major poet prints his paintings too, it looks like self-indulgence. But Paula Burnett enjoys a double vision
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The Independent Culture

Tiepolo's Hound by Derek Walcott (Faber & Faber, £20, 164pp)

Tiepolo's Hound by Derek Walcott (Faber & Faber, £20, 164pp)

In these times of competitive specialisation, the idea of Derek Walcott as a Nobel-winning poet may be familiar, but as a painter...? Those who imagine the typical Sunday painter, ill-advised to risk going public, may find this handsome book a shock. It offers not only a new long poem in a metre as natural as a stroll, but 26 watercolours, mostly Caribbean scenes catching the sparkle of sunlight, the dapple of leaf-shade and the people, precisely present.

Walcott ignores the rules, uses white and splashes clear primaries, yet a subtle technique balances colour and form. Shrewd verticals draw the drama out of horizontals. In the arts, as in the language-arts, he has, in fact, long been a fine artist - and one who enjoys a pun, fascinated by the echo between forms. Here he explores not only how poetry relates to painting, but how art relates to life. The paintings are not just decorative. Though they don't illustrate the poem in any direct sense, they are crucial to its meaning.

This is a first for Walcott: although some of his artwork has been published - on the covers of his US editions, and even as a calendar - never before have word and image made one work. The quietly memorable poem is not only punctuated with his paintings from the last 18 years; it is also about painting. It charts a quest to locate a detail from a Venetian painting that has long haunted the narrator's memory: a white hound's pink inside-thigh. Was it a Tiepolo, or else Veronese's Feast in the House of Levi?

But the poem is haunted also by a black mongrel, glimpsed here and there. We come to realise that this is what matters: not the exotic, the lost, but the here and now, the ordinariness of the available moment and its propulsion to compassion. The paintings likewise expose the disregarded, the unnoticed, as significant.

A key phrase from Walcott's last collection, the "awe of the ordinary", is repeated and developed: "the ordinary is the miracle". This is his creed. His Old Masters are "sunlight and pastures, a tireless sea/ with its one tense, one crest where the last was". Art, like nature, is a realm where time has no triumphs, where the fallen column becomes just a French loaf on a still-life's table. Walcott is drawn to the secular image - not heaven but a hound, not bravura but bread - yet to the possibility of beatitude in both.

The poem hymns the Caribbean world and the art of the Impressionists, focusing on the story of Camille Pissarro, who grew up a Jew on the Caribbean island of St Thomas before seeking France. Walcott, famously, stayed on when so many of the region's artists left. Pissarro, says the narrator, could have been "our pioneer".

A voice calls him back from the gangplank - "be in obscure St Thomas/ our Giotto, our Jerome, our rock-ridden hermit!"- but he sailed away. Although the missed opportunity is recorded, there is no rancour. For Pissarro's paintings gave us his Parisian suburb and its ordinary beauties. A few deft strokes make the tolerant point.

The line between lived experience and art blurs: "the towers/ in haze of Notre Dame's silhouette/ in the Easter drizzle, lines banked with flowers/ and umbrellas flowering, then bobbing like mushrooms/ in the soup-steaming fog." The Paris in the mind's eye is a composite, taken from art and life. The poem asserts that "Paris looked edible," which sets up this image: "All day the sky reset its linen tables,/ smoothed them and scraped their crumbs." As with the hound's thigh, "a miracle leaves/ its frame."

Tiepolo's Hound is a book to read outside, breaking off to notice the light through a blade of grass or a passing stranger's walk. Its humility lies in its knowledge that art's impetus is to return us to life, our eyes and heart opened. Its authority is that of an artist at peace with himself, who writes, opposite a seascape of the view from his St Lucian home, that "This is my peace, my salt, exulting acre: /there is no more Exodus, this is my Zion."

* Paula Burnett edited the 'Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse in English'