Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

At least since Another Life, Walcott’s books have increasingly been a chronicle of his life reflected on in poetry, a series of self-portraits. Like several of the earlier works, White Egrets can be read as a narrative, the story of a particular period in a life which is on the one hand extraordinary — in that it is the life of a fabulously talented man whose gifts have been recognised and whose recognition has brought him fame, travel, and an experience of wealth — and is on the other hand the story of all of us, male or female, wealthy or not, who inevitably experience bereavement, illness, and the fear of death.

A complicated love story runs through this narrative like a watermark. I have no privileged information here; I can only read what the poet is willing to tell us, which, in the case of his love stories in poetry, has never been very much. Among other things, she is “flat faced,” “there never really was a ‘we’ or ‘ours’,” “there was no ‘affair’, it was all one-sided,” it was all “unrequited,” but the “brown faun that grazed on his heart” provides a lot of the lightness and the beauty of this poetry. The non-affair also serves as a terrible reminder of ageing and mortality. Most reviewers have fastened on White Egrets’ “Sicilian Suite” with its

I’ll tell you what they think, that you’re too old to be shaken
by such a lissome young woman, to need her
in spite of your scarred trunk and trembling hand . . .

Interestingly, “only her suffering will bring [him] satisfaction,” and the poet imagines the funeral of his beloved “with a cortege of caterpillars too gaily dressed” and a blackbird from the Ministry of Culture among other mourners — all birds, butterflies, and worms. In the “Spanish Series” he imagines that

I would sit there alone, an old poet
and you, my puta, would be dead . . .

There is a chapter also for a first love, “Sixty Years After”, in which the two sit, he in his and she in her wheelchair, “in the Virgin lounge at Vieuxfort” — “Virgin” a pun, since that airline does not in fact have a lounge in Vieuxfort separate from non-virgin airlines. At the end of the book, however, on a pier in the orange light of a Caribbean sunset, the poet acknowledges that

                                                          Happier
than any man now is the one who sits drinking
wine with his lifelong companion under the winking
stars . . .

This late self-portrait has an impressive ability to look with honesty on the “scarred trunk and trembling hand,” to look baldly on loves past and to make statements as simple as: “I treated all of them badly, my three wives.” It has a moving capacity to chronicle all the ailments: the diabetes, “the furious itch that raises welts,” the “coughing” that ruined the time in Barcelona, the “whimsical bladder and terrible phlegm,” the irony that is proud of the weight loss that won’t make him “Superman,” will just mean he’ll “need a slimmer coffin” (which, incidentally, with a small measure of his old exuberance, is rhymed with “coughing”).

There are almost certainly those who know immediately the story behind the axe-cheekboned brown faun, just as there are those who recognise the occasions and landscapes in Sicily, in Italy, in Spain, and who visualise exactly what Walcott is seeing when he describes them. I can visualise “lonely Barrel of Beef” and the ciseau birds over it, the causeway down which “the scyther, Basil,” rides, the myriad other St Lucian scenes which make immediate visual sense to me, and make me wonder how they read to others who have never seen them. Does a reference to “lonely Barrel of Beef” make a puzzle of the stanza for those readers, the way the image on the first page, the emperor’s “life-sized terra cotta warriors,” did for me until I looked them up? Googling “Barrel of Beef” gives less clear results.

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