Embracing Adversity

The Star-Apple Kingdom

by Derek Walcott
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 58 pp., $10.00

Derek Walcott has both a seafarer’s resourcefulness, appropriate to a West Indian, and a moralist’s eye for character and commitment. In this powerful new book he mediates again the “ancient war between obsession and responsibility” or reflects on the current of history as it afflicts the forfeited beauty of his troubled Antillean world. “The sea is History,” he says in one poem, and presents a panoply of Genesis and Exodus and Babylonian Captivity through images of the ocean continually “turning blank pages / looking for History.”

And in The Star-Apple Kingdom that search for history remains a constant theme—from the explorers and missionaries of the past, the “brigands who barbecued cattle” and “the white sisters clapping / to the waves’ progress,” the dazed crews of the slave ships with “rusty eyeholes like cannons,” to the revolutionary governments “groaning uphill,” the businessmen and diplomats of the present, the suburban gardens flowering with “white paranoia” or the envenomed backwash of the villages where the sense of the sacred is vanishing, where “there are no more elders” but “only old people.”

Dislocation, both emotional and historical, is of course a natural part of the Walcott strategy. And no more so than in one of the new book’s most successful pieces, the long opening poem, “The Schooner Flight,” a threnody of conflict and survival during a bedeviled Caribbean voyage, set in the idiom of a knockabout Trinidadian sailor, a renegade “red nigger” for whom “Progress is history’s dirty joke,” and whose only wealth is “the coins on the sea.” A dramatic monologue in bold iambs, it is unique, I think, to contemporary verse, reminiscent of some of the tales of Conrad, Youth and Typhoon, in particular, and of Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga—and here and there on a par with them. The sailor’s voice, despite occasional awkwardness in colloquial expression, is nevertheless strikingly modulated, alternately roughened and grand, unassuming in its ironies, its appraisal of “the white man” and “the nigger”:

The first chain my hands and apol- ogize, “History”;
the next said I wasn’t black enough for their pride.

Marlowe in Youth speaks of “the sea that gives nothing, except hard knocks—and sometimes a chance to feel your strength,” and in Heart of Darkness he extols “the direct simplicity” of seamen’s yarns. Walcott’s visual powers and narrative gifts exemplify both traits. Still he’s a very different sort of raconteur from the one found in Conrad’s fiction. What he knows he has known since birth; it’s there from the inside. Conrad the Pole had Europe in his bones; the tropics (or its equivalent adventure elsewhere) gave him a second skin; its exoticism tested him as the ordeals and delights of the Mediterranean tested Ulysses. Walcott comes from the “slums of empire” that once “was paradise,” so his engagement has been less with the fabulae of the Old World than with an inveterate America which oppresses his land and the satellites of international commerce that support it. Walcott understands these forces, uses…

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