‘Poetry of Derek Walcott’ showcases master’s legacy

03/16/2014 7:25 AM

08/08/2014 10:22 AM

“The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013” by Derek Walcott, selected by Glyn Maxwell (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 617 pages, $35)

Just as the sea surges relentlessly against the shores of his native St. Lucia, so Derek Walcott has forged an oceanic career as a poet.

From the sands of the Caribbean to the halls of Harvard, he has refined an ecstatic, musical, epic voice that moves effortlessly amid the losses of aging, the enigma of identity and the long-standing ills of colonialism.

His is an associative, rich and elemental view of the world; with each new book, he stakes an ever-wider claim to authority. He remains a literary joy to savor, one of our true global treasures.

Now, in his 84th year, comes “The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013,” an exemplary compilation of a lifetime’s best poems – excluding the book-length “Omeros,” which recasts the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” in Caribbean cadences.

Altogether, Walcott’s body of work stands as a seasoned sentinel of the 20th century. In love with the bounty of language, his poetry soars beyond the blandness of blank verse. He excels at rhetorical flourishes, from expansive, epic stanzas to taut, rhymed quatrains.

Down the Conradian docks of the rusted port,

by gnarled sea grapes whose plates are caked with grime,

to a salvo of flame trees from the old English fort,

he waits, the white specter of another time,

or stands, propping the entrance of some hovel

of a rumshop, to slip into the streets

like the bookmark in a nineteenth-century novel,

scuttering from contact as a crab retreats.

As on many of his books, one of Walcott’s watercolors graces the cover of this indispensable volume. His avocation as a painter keeps him keenly attuned to the beauty of light, its evanescent warmth, its buoyant surprise.

Like a 19th-century Impressionist, he sees his surroundings – refashioned in arresting metaphors – with fresh eyes. For him, all things connect in the benediction of light.

The flame has left the charred wick of the cypress;

the light will catch these islands in their turn.

Magnificent frigates inaugurate the dusk

that flashes through the whisking tails of horses,

the stony fields they graze.

From the hammered anvil of the promontory

the spray settles in stars.

Despite the wealth of his worldwide acclaim – winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992 – Walcott thrives as the perennial outsider, not fully at home in any man’s land.

This tension between the Old World and the New lends his verse its moral energy. He decries the poverty of his West Indies kinsmen – brusquely abandoned by their British overlords – yet stands firmly apart from their suffering because of his immense artistic gifts.

Now, at the rising of Venus – the steady star

that survives translation, if one can call this lamp

the planet that pierces us over indigo islands –

despite the critical sand flies, I accept my function

as a colonial upstart at the end of an empire,

a single, circling, homeless satellite.

What makes Walcott such a powerful presence on the page is his hard-earned realism: He knows his failings well, the largesse of a long life spent contemplating his diminutive place in the cosmos.

I have come this late

to Italy, but better now, perhaps, than in youth

that is never satisfied, whose joys are treacherous,

while my hair rhymes with those far crests, and the bells

of the hilltop towers number my errors,

because we are never where we are, but somewhere else,

even in Italy.

Like Blake before him, he casts a mystic spell over his verse, forever in pursuit of astonishment, “the perpetual ideal.”

To fellow poet Joseph Brodsky, Walcott’s poetry gives us “a sense of infinity embodied in language.” But the poet is finite. And in his last book, “White Egrets,” Walcott hinted that perhaps his prime had passed.

be grateful that you wrote well in this place,

let the torn poems sail from you like a flock

of white egrets in a long last sign of release.

It is hard to imagine this giant of letters not writing again. The world would be a much poorer place. A light would go out in our collective soul.

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