Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

It is a joy to revisit some of the metaphors which those of us who really have been reading Walcott since we were eighteen have followed, as the images thread their colourful way through the tapestry of his poetry, this wonderful series of books that provides the inner story of a life. The birds, the sea, the friends who are dead, and the need to memorialise those who are living (because celebrate them how he will, they will be dead before the poem will) — there are reminders of Yeats here. White egrets like Yeats’s white swans achieve emblematic status in Walcott. The quarrelling stevedores, the shell of the ear, the dark rainy days, the other shore that is Africa (across from Cas-en-Bas, as it was across from that earlier beach with the “Sea Almond Trees”), the parenthetical allusion “(blank printless beaches are part of my trade),” the way landscapes turn into pages (and birds to words, and here, beaks to nibs and back again), the Mediterranean/Caribbean similarities (pointed up here by the visit to Santa Lucia and its visual similarities with St Lucia), the naming of the trees, the naming of the dead and of the living, the stanza that wonders whether Europe is the only proper landscape for poetry (“this is poetry’s weather, this is its true home / not where palms applaud themselves and sails dance in mindless delight” — but the whole book contradicts that argument), the thoughts about Time, about Empire, about the ghost of Empire, the references to ageing and illness . . . There are many more familiar themes and images, and tracing any one of these thoughts, ideas, metaphors through Walcott’s work would easily take an essay of its own.

The references to politicians and enemies are as biographically interesting, of course, as the references to women. There is the internalised enemy who possesses him with its “demonic voice”:

                                               Like the roar
of applause that precedes the actor with increased
doubt to the pitch of paralysed horror
that his prime is past.

“This man” is the one who makes him feel he ought to “abandon poetry.” Not quite an actual enemy, there’s “that bastard” who looks at the Caribbean and speaks of “the emptiness.” Walcott retains the right to criticise the islands, but is at pains to make clear his difference from Naipaul:

                          This verse
is part of the emptiness . . .
a genuine benediction, as his is a genuine curse.

There is the political, Roman Catholic, greedy enemy of poem twenty-two, whom Walcott attempts to bless, and whom he sees the island itself in its lasting beauty forgiving, whether or not the poet can:

It is not my heart that forgives
my enemy his obscene material desires
but the flare of a leaf, the dart of a mottled dove,
the processional surplices of breakers entering the cove
as penitents enter the dome to the lace of an altar . . .

This is presumably the same enemy from stanza one of poem five, “The Acacia Trees”, who has destroyed (or collaborated in the destruction of) Walcott’s favourite beach, the one on the causeway to which he used to be driven across the pasture from his house. A beach “print[ed]” with “tiny yellow [acacia] flowers,” until “there were men with tapes and theodolites who measured / the wild uneven ground.”

                   The new makers
of our history profit without guilt
and are, in fact, prophets of a policy
that will make the island a mall . . .

In poetry and in political action, Walcott has often tried to fight the destruction of the wild, natural spaces, the “doomed acres,” which developers in their greed are determined to despoil. Walcott’s morning swim on that doomed beach was a habit well known to us locals. There were those who used to make a special morning visit to the beach so that they could say they had seen him writing under the trees. Here, the poet admits defeat with the poignant simplicity that is the dominant tone of this book, the simple, nostalgic, regretful line: “I felt such freedom writing under the acacias.”

The white egrets themselves appear again and again. In their form as emblems of death I suppose they remind the reader most forcibly of “The Saddhu of Couva”. Here they are clearly established as the tick-eating creatures we know them to be, but in one of Walcott’s lovely puns, they also have a

                    mythical conceit
that they have beat across the sea from Egypt
with the pharonic ibis . . .
profiled in quiet to adorn a crypt . . .

— their wings “certain as a seraph’s.” Early in the book a “spectral white” egret startles the late Joseph Brodsky while he and Walcott relax beside a swimming pool in St Croix, reminding them both of death, that “the unutterable word was / always with us.” As the book progresses, that unutterable word becomes poignantly, sadly, more and more utterable. The poet occasionally identifies with the egrets in their more corporeal incarnations:

We share one instinct, that ravenous feeding
my pen’s beak, plucking up wriggling insects
like nouns and gulping them, the nib reading
as it writes, shaking off angrily what its beak rejects.
Selection is what the egrets teach . . .

Continuing with the punning references to plays, poems, and death, he later suggests that the egrets remind him to

Be happy now at Cap for the simplest joys —
for a line of white egrets prompting the last word
for the sea’s recitation . . .

Throughout White Egrets we see Walcott’s old fascination with dense language, with puns that bring several meanings together, making an apparently simple utterance in reality very complex. His love of rhyme — sometimes humorous, polysyllabic rhyme — is also apparent throughout the book. There is the odd inverted simile, when for instance a “gale-haired beauty pushes a canto in Dante / open like a glass door.”

The poems in this book move all over the Western world, capturing the poet’s reaction to places often in deft little stories, such as the New York one (poem sixteen), in which for a moment the poet finds himself alone, emerging from the subway as one of the last people left in the world. That horror story is quickly undercut by the more mundane, amusing sort of horror story:

Everyone in New York is in a sitcom.
I’m in a Latin American novel, one
In which an egret-haired viejo shakes with some
Invisible sorrow, some obscene affliction . . .