White Egrets, Derek Walcott, Faber and Faber, 89pp, £12.99 (hardback)

‘Another emblem there!’ W. B. Yeats exclaims in ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’ of his mounting swan, a ‘stormy white’ that ‘seems a concentration of the sky’. Derek Walcott remembers the Irish Nobel laureate’s words when in this new book’s title sequence he evokes ‘with its gawky stride, erect, an egret-emblem!’ An emblem of what? When, at the close of the same poem, ‘the egrets soar together in noiseless flight/or tack, like a regatta, the sea-green grass,/they are seraphic souls’. As is natural in later-life poetry, Walcott elegises his friends and colleagues gone before, and the soul he has in mind here is probably Brodsky: ‘seraphic souls, as Joseph was.’ He and Walcott were great friends, and Brodsky was a great poet in that, like Walcott, he invested everything in his art. Yet was he a ‘seraphic soul’? He could treat with dismissive contempt those not on his level, and few were assumed not to be. White Egrets essays the cost of seriousness, the price both poet and those around him may pay, and have paid, for the single-mindedness of his outlook and works.

Walcott rhymes the ‘elegance of those white, orange-billed egrets’ with ‘that peace/beyond desires and beyond regrets’ in the second section of his title sequence. The effect is subtly complex. Chiming the trochaic ‘egrets’ against the iambic ‘regrets’ already establishes a conceptual discrepancy or slight mismatching of ideas, the birds symbolising both purity and freedom from care, an idea that the prepositional phrase ‘beyond regrets’ attempts to meet squarely. Yet the rhymesound and the placing of the word at the line end – consequentially after ‘beyond desires’ – momentarily pauses the reading mind on the foreground-rhymed concept of ‘regrets’. The syntax and the lineation want to move the poem and the poet on to ‘that peace’, but the creative intelligence hooks the ‘regrets’ onto the ‘egrets’ and checks the desired advance ‘beyond’. This pausing movement is what the entire book, White Egrets, performs. To say that its trajectory does not reach ‘that peace’ is no criticism, for the equilibrium gained by accepting that you could live it all again would not be a state of grace if achieved by overlooking or forgetting those very regrets that make ‘eternal recurrence’ so unlikely a wish.

In the course of his book Walcott’s techniques do quiet regrets in distinguished and peculiarly muted poems. The book is organised, as have been most of Walcott’s collections since Midsummer (1984), as a numbered sequence of texts (bearing a resemblance to Robert Lowell’s Notebook and later sonnet volumes), some of them forming sub-sequences, both with and without titles. The untitled number 18 addresses dissatisfactions with his oil painting technique, bringing together disappointment with art skills and regrets about life:

The angle at which the late afternoon light
fell across both canvases revealed the coarse impasto
of the paint, a crudity that now showed so late
in life, when I had imagined I would master
portrait and landscape by this time, I’d be seventy-eight
and had done some more than tolerable, I thought,
things, sold, exhibited them, but the scabrous surfaces
were like some dread disease the paint had caught
that suddenly in that hour raked scenes and faces
to nothing, not a style, just a crass confidence –
a thickness, not of skill as in van Gogh or Bacon,
that showed the self revealed for what it is;
the revelation came so quietly.

Not only does this passage give a sense of the reflective mode in which the poems are composed, but also of the relaxed, rhyming, formal confidence that shapes such a capacity to speak out over subtly enjambed, syntactic stretches. Walcott is a distinctly competent painter, as can be seen from the Farrar, Straus & Giroux covers of Collected Poems 1948–1984 (1986) and The Bounty (1997) for instance, which reproduce, respectively, a still life and a landscape by the poet. But there is a disequilibrium in the way failures in art are added to those of life, because dissatisfactions with art take place ‘in life’, as, of course, do those with behaviour, but successes in art take place ‘in art’ and are less readily cashed out in life. As Walcott puts it in his searching essay on Lowell collected in What the Twilight Says (1998): ‘Poetry is not the redemption of conduct.’

Elsewhere, in number 35, Walcott writes mimetically of his supposedly faded powers:

All of this happened when I turned away,
the deliberate delight in incoherence, the whiff of chaos
off the first page of some new book, the putrescent decay
of drawing which I had begun to smell, the coarse
exuberance that passed for wit, it’s still incredible the way
my gift abandoned me like a woman I was too old for …

Yeatsian again is Walcott’s squarely facing an old man’s infatuation with young women, which appears early in the volume (as if the poem were a response to the rumour-mongering that obliged him to withdraw his candidacy for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry in 2009). In ‘Sicilian Suite’ he reassures readers, in the first line of the seventh part, that ‘There was no “affair,” it was all one-sided’, and goes on to explicate his passion in an ‘ombre des jeunes filles’: ‘By the open-air table where I sat alone/a flock of chattering girls passed, premature sirens/fleeing like pipers from the sudden thought of a stone.’ So that –

I wondered in the inching sun how it was known
to the ferry’s horn, the pines, the Bay’s azure hills
and the jeering screaming girls that I would lose her
or an accordion’s meandering sob and moan
through the coiled, serpentine alleys of Siracusa.

Once again, as in ‘lose her’/‘Siracusa’, we hear how fluency of speech is driven by rhyme. The entire book, as if by Victor Hugo, finds in the repertoire of traditional prosody, ample vocabulary, and applied narrative techniques sufficient structure for an enthusiastic personal turning of phrase, one which allows him to address, with a controlled frankness, this matter of an old man overwhelmed by sexual desires for a young woman – and a range of other issues.

So, despite the passages in which Walcott laments his declining artistic powers, in ‘Sicilian Suite’ his reflectively elaborated syntax impressively homes in on the issue of his continuing and felt-to-be inappropriate attraction to the opposite sex:

I’ll tell you what they think: you’re too old to be
shaken by such a lissom young woman, to need her
in spite of your scarred trunk and trembling hand,
your head rustles with thoughts of her like the cedar
in March, you blaze in her praise like a sea-almond,
the crab scrawls your letters then hides them,
certain that she would never understand.

The section closes with an even more risk-taking turn: ‘How boring the love of others is, isn’t it, Reader?/This page, touched by the sun’s declining arc,/sighs with the same whinge, the Sonnets and Petrarch.’ Something is wrong here, in that public obsession with celebrities could incline us to think readers cannot get enough of ‘the love of others’, so long as they have a modicum of fame. While ‘whinge’ might be an appropriately self-denigrating way to refer to passion in these late poems, you could wonder if Shakespeare’s Sonnets are boring because about ‘his’ loves, or that Petrarch’s lifelong transformation of brief acquaintance with Laura into a spiritual quest is either the same thing as Walcott is talking about, or that Shakespeare was exploring in his sequence, or, for that matter, ‘boring’ — in the sense that we probably don’t go to the Canzoniere for the distraction or prurient interest that the word implies.

But, to be fair, the evocation of the Sonnets and Petrarch is tactically designed to focus a perhaps inevitable fact of love poetry and its ingrained egoism, namely the mismatch, in Shakespeare and Proust, for instance, between the selfawareness of passionate attachment and the simultaneous known social or cultural evaluation of its inspiring figure:

What if all this passion is out of proportion to its subject?
An average beauty, magnified to deific, demonic
stature by the fury of intellect,
a flat-faced girl with slanted eyes and a narrow
waist, and a country lilt to her voice,
that she should infect your day to the very marrow,
to hate the common light and its simple joys?
Where does this sickness come from, because it is
sickness, this conversion of the simplest action
to an ordeal, this hatred of simple delight
in others, of benches in the empty park?

At the end of this section he associates the rhythm of poetry – and that of the sea – with the regularity and repetitiveness, as it might be, of his life-skill failures: ‘I watch them accumulating my errors/steadily repeated as the waves as the sea’s/decline’. Walcott has a sure, a reassuring, rhythmic touch and skill with rhymes, both the unusually inventive and unobtrusively routine, that carry the pulses of sensory experience to the reader like the waves breaking on his beaches – a simile repeatedly drawn on both by the poet and his admirers.

So the book’s thematic rhyme is that of ‘egrets’ with ‘regrets’, as in this admission from ‘Sicilian Suite’: ‘All of those people and their lucky lives./I know what I’ve done, I cannot look beyond./I treated all of them badly, my three wives.’ Yet the overarching matter of White Egrets – with age-old old-age romantic obsession as a sub-theme, its refrains of ‘the quiet ravages of diabetes’ and of failing artistic powers – is the inescapable natural world of breakers and island flora and fauna. It is vivid in Walcott’s poetry from the first, as here again in number 32, remaining intensely present, simultaneously underlining the temporariness of the sensibility that they fed:

If it is true
that my gift has withered, that there’s little left of it,
if this man is right then there’s nothing else to do
but abandon poetry like a woman because you love it
and would not see her hurt, least of all by me;
so walk to the cliff’s edge and soar above it,
the jealousy, the spite, the nastiness with the grace
of a frigate over Barrel of Beef, its rock;
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 sigh of release.

Walcott’s work is extraordinarily fluent and copious, and this is fed by his historic ambivalences, his straddling of categories and his ability to evoke the appeal in what he also recognises as well and truly lost. He revisits complex allegiances with London, New York, Italy, Holland and Spain, with the end of the imperial, and returns to the scenes of his home in St. Lucia.

Walcott’s eloquently hybrid synthesis of traditions, and the multiple contradictions it contains, is addressed in the two-part ‘A London Afternoon’ when he asks:

What have these narrow streets, begrimed with age
and greasy with tradition, their knobbly names,
their pizza joints, their betting shops, that black garage,
the ping and rattle of mesmerizing games
on slot machines, to do with that England on each page
of my fifth-form anthology, now that my mind’s
an ageing sea remembering its lines,
the scent and symmetry of Wyatt, Surrey?

The passage skillfully answers its own question though, by, for instance, that rhyming of an iambic ‘with age’ against the trochaic (depending on your pronunciation) half-rhyme ‘garage’, and the spondaic ‘each page’. The streets ‘begrimed with age/ and greasy with tradition’ can still be vividly evoked by redeploying the repertoire of poetic devices pioneered in English by those very Petrarch-influenced love poets that he recalls. Passionate attachment and remorse, self-belief and creative doubt: his embraced traditions have goaded him on and they judge him.

Not all the sections here are equally well-written or finely imagined. Number 46, for example, is a brittle face-off between two views of Caribbean vegetation and culture. One is ‘what that bastard calls “the emptiness” –/that blue-green ridge with plunging slopes, the blossoms/like drooping chalices, of the African tulip’ and, Walcott continues, ‘the phrase applies/to our pathetic, pompous cities, their fretwork balconies,/their retail stores blasting reggae’. Whoever ‘that bastard’ may be, he is nailed to the image from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with its ‘warship pointlessly firing/into the huge empty jungle’. Walcott sides with Chinua Achebe, then, in castigating the old seadog for his cruelly well-observed account of European racism. His poem almost certainly has some unidentified other ‘bastard’ as its target, though Conrad inevitably catches some of its flak. Then it all turns to staging an act of solidarity: ‘This verse/is part of the emptiness, as is the valley of Santa Cruz,/a genuine benediction as his is a genuine curse.’ Which is finally where Walcott takes his stand, in benediction, and the inspiring materiality of his home world, as here in the close to poem 51:

and yet there are the days
when every street corner rounds itself into
a sunlit surprise, a painting or a phrase,
canoes drawn up by the market, the harbour’s blue,
the barracks. So much to do still, all of it praise.

Well, not quite ‘all of it’, as his raging against ‘that bastard’ in 46 has shown. If Walcott is drawn towards Rilke’s answer in ‘O say, Poet, what you do’ (‘I praise’), his book as a whole shows him more than aware that a blanket celebration of life can be a form of valetudinarian withdrawal from the battles of reality. If this volume does prove to be Derek Walcott’s last book of poetry, then, despite its occasional momentary lapses and the sense of a horizon tour around his themes, it is nonetheless a remarkable swansong – or, no, make that an egret-song.

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