Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Ten Best Books Of 2010: White Egrets by Derek Walcott

I will make no qualms about this book's place on the list. I like it. That is why it's here. There is no great poetic construction going on in Walcot's most recent collection. Instead there is a slightly cynical brand of sentimentalism to be found, which can at once dispassionately evoke the minutiae of mortality's relegation and vainly recall a former, stronger world.

It is the poetry of a storied life that has more ground behind than before it. Yet if there is folly to be found in sentimentalism and the backward glance, then it can be avoided if combined with that particularly grim wisdom born of witnessing hundreds of endings.

White Egrets
is pastoral, urban, global and parochial. Through the lexicon of his native Saint Lucia, Walcott gives us the world.

Now for the dirty details. In a modified form, here is my original review from April of this year.

White Egrets by Derek Walcott. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Poetry. Hardcover. 86 pps. ISBN: 9780374289294. $24.

I have kept the same furies, though my domestic rage
is illogical, diabetic, with no lessening love
though my hand trembles wildly, but not over this page.

-from "The Sweet Life Cafe", a portion of "In The Village" from White Egrets

A Nobel Laureate's newest collection always garners interest. In the case of Walcott's White Egrets there is all the more interest, being that this is Walcott's first public statement, albeit a literary one, since the shameful event that is appropriately known as the "Padel Controversy."

I only mention the smear campaign involving poet Ruth Padel during her and Walcott's consideration for the position of Professor Of Poetry at Oxford in 2009 because, well, I love to smear the supposed genteel nature of the ivory tower whenever possible. It isn't genteel. Often, and in the case of Padel's actions, it is as barbaric as GOP politics.

Reminds me of the two treacherous, dueling academics in "Guayaquil." That aside, I feel comfortable smearing this particular alcove of the ivory tower because, well, I do so without proxy.

Why do I say that? Perhaps a refresher is needed concerning the "Padel Controversy."

At one time or another, sexual harassment charges have been leveled against Walcott in the past and it seems Padel might have been involved in a slander campaign sing these allegations in order to obtain the position for herself. Walcott was favored to win the coveted position apparently Padel thought her poetry and views on writing were not sufficient to overcome. The smear campaign worked and Walcott removed his candidacy while Padel went on to win. Seems some lead poets weren't impressed with the display and called for Padel's removal. She of course obliged and denied any conscious role in the affair.


Where has this left the great Caribbean writer? Are there subjects now too taboo for the aging poet to discuss? In a word: no. Not in Walcott's mind at least, and that's all that matters.

White Egrets is impressively diverse. It follows the threads of mixed heritage that define Caribbean life back to their sources in Europe and beyond. Whether evoking the Egyptian gods via the travels of the Ibis in the collection's title poem or to a town in Italy whose name conjures the same Saint Lucia that Walcott's native island does. Because of this singular filter, Walcott is allowed to move the collection in a number of directions without losing cohesion.

It is impressive pastoral poetry both because of the sublimity of the natural world brought forth and the humanity that Walcott sets upon the stage to behold the miracle of birds and rustling flora.

It is remarkable poetry of the human condition, or the town and the city. Walcott methodically, at times almost plodding, vacillates between the brutishness and beauty of life. This is the poetry of an old man who has seen much and knows how to describe what he has seen.

There is an unabashed longing in White Egrets. The lithe young women who populate many of the narratives are fleeting or ghostly. In some cases they are dead. They are loves that can only be remembered because they are gone, whether via the force of opposing wills or by the sepulchral way.

A lesser man might be uncomfortable talking about such liaisons or write the line, "My lust is in great health," especially considering the "Padel Controversy" is only a lone year on the shelf. I do not use the general term of "person" above because in the end these are very masculine poems.

If a theme recurs throughout the collection it is that though love may be lost and strength of limb diminish it is poetry, or literature, that may yet provide stability and order in those final years of supposed retreat.

In the opinion of this once and future roustabout, it is the third poem in the collection that conjures this book at its most sad and glorious height. Walcott describes longshoremen working and living beneath the "mountainous freight bound with knots and cinches" of the docks of St. Lucia. Walcott describes it as his "early war" and whether he was a true roustabout or not, he captures the milieu with accuracy that only one who has at some point won their wages with their arms and back can.

After describing the toil, the camaraderie and quarreling specific to such work, the mighty strength and the massive meals used to stoke the fire of labor, Walcott sends his strongmen into the night.

They go alone, as we all do, but are yet armed with a booming voice that time has left undiminished.

Then one would be terribly injured, one lose a leg
to rum and diabetes. You would watch him shrink
into his nickname, not too proud to beg,
who would roar like a lorry revving in the prime of his drink.

Words, whether roared or etched with steady pen, are the constant. No scandal can change that and personally I can take a great solace in that.

Slander has a particularly tinny sound to it after hearing those revving lorries.

1 comment:

driftinscotty said...

I think I've just been convinced to go track down this book. Good job with the pull quotes - just the thing to pique an unfamiliar reader's interest.