When I first read Derek Walcott’s poems I was taken by this grounded sense of brave honesty that comes through. The poems have a resonance that hangs with me for days after I read them. His work has impressed with the expansiveness of the projects, the complexity and diversity of ideas, and the impact of his well chosen words and images. On Poets.org, the poet Joseph Brodsky is quoted as saying about Walcott, “For almost forty years his throbbing and relentless lines kept arriving in the English language like tidal waves, coagulating into an archipelago of poems without which the map of modern literature would effectively match wallpaper. He gives us more than himself or ‘a world’; he gives us a sense of infinity embodied in the language.”
Derek Walcott was born in Castries, Saint Lucia. His first poem was published in The Voice of Saint Lucia when he was only fourteen years old. He has published eight volumes of poetry. His adaptation of the Odyssey, titled Omeros, is brilliant and ambitious. Walcott has worked in theater and founded the Trinidad Theater Workshop and Boston Playwrights’ Theatre at Boston University. He has written numerous plays in addition to his poetry. Walcott is also a visual artists. This dynamic, creative poet has won many honours including the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, a Royal Society of Literature Award, and the 1988 Queen’s Medal for Poetry. The poem that follows is from Walcott’s most recent book of poetry titled White Egrets.
“In the Village”
by Derek Walcott
I came up out of the subway and there were
people standing on the steps as if they knew
something I didn’t. This was in the Cold War,
and nuclear fallout. I looked and the whole avenue
was empty, I mean utterly, and I thought,
The birds have abandoned our cities and the plague
of silence multiplies through their arteries, they fought
the war and they lost and there’s nothing subtle or vague
in this horrifying vacuum that is New York. I caught
the blare of a loudspeaker repeatedly warning
the last few people, maybe strolling lovers in their walk,
that the world was about to end that morning
on Sixth or Seventh Avenue with no people going to work
in that uncontradicted, horrifying perspective.
It was no way to die, but it’s also no way to live.
Well, if we burnt, it was at least New York.
Everybody 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,
and chronicles it secretly, till it shows in his face,
the parenthetical wrinkles confirming his fiction
to his deep embarrassment. Look, it’s
just the old story of a heart that won’t call it quits
whatever the odds, quixotic. It’s just one that’ll
break nobody’s heart, even if the grizzled colonel
pitches from his steed in a cavalry charge, in a battle
that won’t make him a statue. It is the hell
of ordinary, unrequited love. Watch these egrets
trudging the lawn in a dishevelled troop, white banners
trailing forlornly; they are the bleached regrets
of an old man’s memoirs, printed stanzas.
showing their hinged wings like wide open secrets.
Who has removed the typewriter from my desk,
so that I am a musician without his piano
with emptiness ahead as clear and grotesque
as another spring? My veins bud, and I am so
full of poems, a wastebasket of black wire.
The notes outside are visible; sparrows will
line antennae like staves, the way springs were,
but the roofs are cold and the great grey river
where a liner glides, huge as a winter hill,
moves imperceptibly like the accumulating
years. I have no reason to forgive her
for what I brought on myself. I am past hating,
past the longing for Italy where blowing snow
absolves and whitens a kneeling mountain range
outside Milan. Through glass, I am waiting
for the sound of a bird to unhinge the beginning
of spring, but my hands, my work, feel strange
without the rusty music of my machine. No words
for the Arctic liner moving down the Hudson, for the mange
of old snow moulting from the roofs. No poems. No birds.
The Sweet Life Café
If I fall into a grizzled stillness
sometimes, over the red-chequered tablecloth
outdoors of the Sweet Life Café, when the noise
of Sunday traffic in the Village is soft as a moth
working in storage, it is because of age
which I rarely admit to, or, honestly, even think of.
I have kept the same furies, though my domestic rage
is illogical, diabetic, with no lessening of love
though my hand trembles wildly, but not over this page.
My lust is in great health, but, if it happens
that all my towers shrivel to dribbling sand,
joy will still bend the cane-reeds with my pen’s
elation on the road to Vieuxfort with fever-grass
white in the sun, and, as for the sea breaking
in the gap at Praslin, they add up to the grace
I have known and which death will be taking
from my hand on this chequered tablecloth in this good place.