The Prodigal by Derek Walcott

Songs of innocence and colonial experience
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The Independent Culture

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A few pages shy of the end of his latest book-length poem, Derek Walcott shows his poet's hand: "In what will be your last book make each place as if it had just been made, already old, but new again from naming it". Naming, or what the Nobel-anointed bard from St Lucia calls "Adam's gift", has never been more poignant.

This is a last book, Walcott says - yet the poet aligns his art with beginnings not endings. He shuns the idea of writing for posterity and gambles instead on poetry as temporal, rehearsals of something new and old, simultaneously. Ezra Pound's dictum, "make it new", is recast as Trotsky's perpetual revolution, in terms of the unstable, slippery nomenclature of language rather than economic forces.

First, second and third person pronouns abound in Walcott's multiple sense of self, out in the world and keen to maximise the poetic yield: "The Bounty", as a previous collection coined it. That self, shakily held together by its mercurial and delightful command of post-colonial English registers, marshals sensuous detail to philosophical effect.

In his seniority, the poet inclines more towards honesty and fellow-feeling than the detached bravado of youth. The benefit for readers is a Walcott who is winningly vulnerable and less polished. While in Mexico, he learns of his twin brother Roddy's death. He misses the cremation but promises to his brother's memory, the devotion of his poet's and painter's double-berthed craft.

Living in many places exerts a toll, Walcott says: "He contains many absences". The poet, cast in the third person, earns his witty revision of Whitman's first person: "I contain multitudes". Walcott is a poet of metaphor. His transmogrifying gift with sensory detail, and his magical conversion of landscape back into the scribal culture that seeks it out, simply mesmerise. His talent for transmutation achieves a double effect. There is, first, a figurative match between what is seen and how it is seen (the metaphor). Second comes the text as a world, which Walcott sits up in all its double-naturedness for readers to regard.

The unifying zeal of his art brings coherence to his kaleidoscopic heritage, and his sense of a plural self. Art creates a concordance between the inner life of thought and the outer world of sensory experience. He reminds us why metaphor, and the scriptural rendering of nature, appear best suited to the marathon rather than the short-sprint lyric.

Metaphorical imagery abounds on diverse topics in The Prodigal, from globe-trotting, to septuagenarian angst, to the heritage of English Literature for the de-colonised mind. The cumulative effect exposes the fragility and excesses of global posturing as much as that of the ageing poet's body.

The lasting impression of The Prodigal has nothing to do with whether or not this is a final instalment in a long poetic exploration. What seems crucial is that the poem appears with all the tones of an emergency, as if it were a final undertaking. The legacy of Walcott's art may well be its partial investment in the ideal of a reconciled Europe and Africa: a non-starter for many but here feelingly, touchingly, true.

Fred D'Aguiar's 'Bethany Bettany' is published by Vintage

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