Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

Walcott’s later books have usually had his paintings on their covers. The tone of this book is the grey of its cover. It is the grey of the grudging recognition of death, including his own, in attitudes that range and wander among feelings of protest, as in “It’s what others do, not us, die”; acceptance, as in “with the leisure of a leaf falling in the forest . . . my ending”; and grief. There are many episodes describing raw grief. One of the most beautiful and moving is poem twenty-six, which describes the feeling of looking at the phone numbers of the dead in an address book — and which I will not quote at all, because I would want to quote the whole page. Walcott, as always, feels the desire to get on with the work — because time is passing and the day will come when he will no longer be here to do the work, and because the living whom he wishes to celebrate may not be around to be celebrated if he does not hurry: “Quick, quick, before they all die . . .”

A grey, rainy season book from a poet who once found the island “loveliest in drought.” “The egrets stalk through the rain / as if nothing mortal can affect them,” emblems of eternity, while “friends, the few I have left / are dying,” and sometimes even “the hills . . . disappear / like friends.” These lines at the beginning of the book celebrate “memory” and “prayer,” and the book ends with another rainy season poem, a thirteen-line stanza that harks back remarkably to the In a Green Night sonnet in which Walcott leaves St Lucia for the first time, a sonnet which is repeated almost word for word in Another Life. Here, in a beautiful twist, the image is reversed. In the earlier poems, the poet looks out of the plane window and sees the island getting smaller and smaller, the roads becoming like “twine.” Here he returns to the island through the poem whose page is like a cloud, occasionally hiding the mountains but finally parting, allowing him to see “the whole self-naming island” (the island that he, in Another Life, wanted to name), “its streets growing closer like print you can now read.”

One word from “Adieu foulard . . .”, the original Green Night poem,was changed when the sonnet became part of the end of chapter seventeen of Another Life: in the original, “each mile” the plane put between the poet and the people and island he loved was “dividing us and all fidelity strained / till space would snap it”; in the version incorporated into the longer poem in Another Life, each mile was “tightening” them. White Egrets assures us that the thread of fidelity may have been strained, but could never have been snapped by any space that ever separated the poet from his home. In this book, our icon returns to us, through parting clouds, to a place that, despite its shortcomings, is home, a place where we are humbly glad to welcome him back.

Jane King is an accomplished Saint Lucian poet, whose work is widely recognized as part of the growing tradition of Caribbean women’s poetry. Her work intertwines social, inter-personal and spiritual themes in language at once layered and accessible. Her latest publication is ‘Performance Anxiety’ (Peepal Tree, 2013).

 

Editor’s note: We wish to thank Jane King and The Caribbean Review of Books for granting permission to publish this review.

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