The Carrier of Ladders
The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace
The Whispering Roots and Other Poems
Derek Walcott is a poet, a playwright, a West Indian, sometime director of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. For all I know, he may have other distinguishing marks, but these few are enough to give him a plot, a predicament. It is clear from the Overture to Dream on Monkey Mountain,* a collection of his plays, that he carries on his back a load of unfulfilled history, promises, promises. He has done well by his own promise, he has been as good as his word, but one man can’t do everything. When Mr. Walcott writes of Caribbean theater and its bearing upon the nature of Caribbean life, his prose reminds me of those early propaganda essays in which Yeats tried to call a theater into existence by will power and rhetoric. Often, what ought to be done requires magic, divine intervention. In the end, a writer settles for the inadequate resources of talent, time, energy, and a little patronage.
Mr. Walcott is a powerful writer, but many of his poems are trapped in the politics of feeling, knowing the representative fate they must sustain. It is enough for any poet that he is responsible for his own feeling: he answers to his scruple, his conscience, hard master. But Mr. Walcott’s poems try to serve a second master, the predicament of his people. They tie themselves in historical chains, and then try to break loose. It is my impression that the poems are trying now to escape from the politics of feeling by an increasingly personal understanding, taste, truth. Fighting against rhetoric, he resorts to rhetoric, both Caribbean, inescapable. Besides, he has a weakness for grandeur, and he rushes into temptation by writing of exile, ancestral loss, historical plangencies, the gulf between man and man.
He is in a middle state, history at one extreme, sensibility at the other; history, meaning loss and bondage, “customs and gods that are not born again,” and sensibility, meaning a sense of responsibility to feeling, its validity and measure. His chosen themes are black and white, Desdemona and Othello, “a life we never found,” ancestry, “I am the man my father loved and was,” New York, Robinson Crusoe, Christmas, death, Guevara, loneliness, leaving home and coming back. What these themes do to the sensibility is the substance of the book: in a word, exacerbation. Often the sensibility is outraged by fact, and the poem is a cry of humiliation.
In principle, Mr. Walcott wants a direct style. “All styles yearn to be plain / as life,” he says, but he will not let his own style yearn for that quality. In “Homage to Edward Thomas” he speaks of “lines which you once dismissed as tenuous / because they would not howl or overwhelm,” and in “The White Town” “the poet howling in vines of syntax,” is treated with irony. But many of Mr. Walcott’s poems howl, their sensibility overwhelmed. Sometimes the abuse is his own fault, one violence answering another, and we have the feeling that Mr. Walcott is impatient to assume the world, he will not wait for the just word. I find it surprising, for instance, that the word “prickling” appears so often in these poems: “eyes prickling with rage,” “hair / prickling the scalp.” Again:
of fine hair prickled his skin’s
horror of that cold.
It is hard to believe that the word is exactly right in each case. In diction, Mr. Walcott is striking, but often what he strikes is a hard bargain, practicing usury in the transaction between language and feeling. He writes everything so large that the reader is inclined to deduct something, to keep the situation reasonable. An impression of excess arises from Mr. Walcott’s poems, especially when they insist upon converting the natural forms into human terms:
From a harsh
shower, its gutters growled and gargled wash
past the Youth Centre.
I never tire of ocean’s quarrelling,
Its silence, its raw voice.
I, too, never tire of the ocean, but I would be disappointed to learn that those wonderfully alien sounds can so easily be translated into growling, gargling, and quarreling. If that is what the wild waves are saying, we are wasting our time listening to them. Mr. Walcott’s language does not give enough allowance to mystery or silence; he assumes that everything in nature can be overwhelmed.
Or most things, anyway. Some few are impenetrable: a concession wrung from Mr. Walcott when he encounters frosted glass. As for glass generally:
Elizabeth wrote once
that we make glass the image of our pain.
Mr. Walcott is extraordinarily resourceful with the image. In “A Village Life” it begins impenetrable:
But that stare, frozen,
a frosted pane in sunlight,
gives nothing back by letting no- thing in.
Later it justifies a corresponding attitude in the perceiver:
And since that winter I have learnt to gaze
on life indifferently as through a pane of glass.
In another poem the dirty window of a railway carriage is noted as if perception were already compromised. Scenes pictured from a train are “lantern slides clicking across / the window glazed by ocean air.” Near the end of the book, middle age brings the speaker “nearer the weak / vision thickening to a frosted pane.” My list is incomplete. I merely suggest that readers take the image as a point of entry to Mr. Walcott’s poems. Presumably it is related to the poet’s sense of himself as distinct, however marginally, from the mere sum of his experience.
As a poet, Mr. Walcott comes on strong: his common style is more suited to the theater, perhaps, and certainly the plays, especially The Sea at Dauphin and Dream on Monkey Mountain, seem native to their idiom. The finest poems are those in which Mr. Walcott’s sensibility communes with centuries of historical experience, the long perspective of life in place and time. Perhaps in these poems the venom of his own promises, needs, and aspirations is dispelled; there have been thousands of years before now. My favorite among such poems is “Air,” which starts from a paragraph in Froude’s The Bow of Ulysses almost as touching as the poem itself, then moves through a series of meditations, beautifully balanced, ending in a long sentence running down the page to the “nothing” at the end. It is a lovely poem, and there are other poems in the book almost as fine.
The Carrier of Ladders, W.S. Merwin’s new book, begins with poems about beginnings, implying rock bottom, starting out again. “Toward morning I dream of the first words / of books of voyages,” a few pages later, “Oh god of beginnings / immortal.” “The Piper” ends:
I am here
be ready to teach me
I am almost ready to learn.
In the corresponding form of language, words are emptied of all allegiance except what remains in their cadence: that is, Mr. Merwin does by cadence what other poets do by image and figure, the further difference being that cadence is the last part of words to go and the best part to start from:
more and more I remember
what isn’t so.
In these poems the diction is as tenuous as it can well be. The words do not call attention to themselves as words, they have hardly more than the modest aim of connectives, establishing rhythmic sequences on which later efforts depend. The poet is looking for ways, means, stirrings, directions (“oh long way to go”), guidance, consequence (“I do not think it goes all the way”), ultimately “the way home.” I was reminded of Theodore Roethke’s poems of beginning, his idiom of rudiments, as if words had to begin all over again, yielding up every position ostensibly reached. But Mr. Merwin’s version is more urbane than anything I recall in Roethke.
What distinguishes Mr. Merwin’s poems in this collection is the assumption that the mind may be imprudent to rely upon objects of perception. “Leaves understand flowers / well enough,” he says at one point; on the other hand, “the darkness is cold / because the stars do not believe in each other.” Objects are endorsed only when they are felt as participating in the life of feeling: “how many things come to one name / hoping to be fed.” As objects, independent of feeling, they are hardly recognized.
Just as words live so long as the cadence lasts and not a moment longer, so objects survive in our arbitrary sense of them. In these poems the body survives as footprints in snow, speech as the echo of speech, but the relation between man and nature is insecure, perhaps doomed. Many of the poems are soundtracks of loss and lapse: even on the page, with the finality of print, they look as if they have recently been divorced. When objects are invoked, they are seen in a middle distance, not as figures sturdy in their setting but as departing presences; losing their substance, they are diminished to their shapes.
So it comes as a shock when Mr. Merwin writes, as the last line of his “Third Psalm,” “oh objects come and talk with us while you can,” except that the note of desperation is true. We are to suppose a speaker of these poems, long accustomed to recitations of the beautiful, who is on the brink of discovering that beauty has nothing to do with truth. Those old books of voyages were “sure tellings,” but there is nothing now to tell. Mr. Merwin’s new poems issue from severance. They are not messages, swiftly delivered from poet to reader, but tokens of fracture; the only hope is to begin again with a recovered ABC of feeling.
I find these poems extremely moving. Of Mr. Merwin’s earlier work I have sometimes wondered why poems so richly endowed should not have passion as well. One poem led to another, and there was no wish on my part to give them up, but few of them stayed in the mind or cast a shadow beyond the page. I admired Mr. Merwin’s manner, not least his good manners, but I wished he would commit an outrage occasionally. The work seemed more impressive as poetry than as poems: that is, as evidence of a poetic imagination at large. The new book retains something of this impression: no single poems leap from it, but the book as a whole has an air of nobility which cannot be refuted.
I now think it vulgar to demand “passion” from such a poet as Mr. Merwin, if we mean something hieratic or Yeatsian. Mr. Merwin plays a different instrument, his fingering is different. “The First Darkness” begins:
Maybe he does not even have to exist
to exist in departures
then the first darkness falls.
Mr. Merwin’s special nuance of feeling is there, in his sense of existence in departure; as, later in the same poem, he speaks of stone as seen “though the eyes are not yet made that can see it.” Passion in the new book, if the word is to be used, is the energy of the book as a whole, the entire record of loss, fear, and hope; not a spirit to be distilled at any chosen moment, but a quality of conscientiousness which maintains itself throughout.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 326 pp., $10.00.↩
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 326 pp., $10.00.↩