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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 what he calls “the alphabet soup of CIA, PNP, OPEC” as ironically or scornfully as Conrad uses ivory and silver and the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. But Conrad’s genius was part of the imperialist age, as much a part of the era of General Booth as that of Kipling and Gissing; he was still able to understand, to interpret “the horror,” however fatalistically; still able to invoke the “awe / which has been lost to our time,” as Walcott observes (in a different context) in a poem on Conrad in an earlier collection.

Conrad is the memorialist of the colonial experience, sees in its triumph its own defeat; this gives his work its magnificent “sense of finality.” Also its riddling nature. In Conrad something is always touching the void, whether it’s little Stevie endlessly drawing circles on a sheet of paper, Marlowe seated “in the pose of a meditating Buddha,” or Lord Jim regaining his honor while baring his breast to the muzzle of a chieftain’s gun. Conrad is a supremely physical writer in whom the terrors of space, of nothingness, are paramount; his stern morality is there to assuage the emptiness.

Walcott’s position as a “Third World” poet, an exemplar of the neo-colonial experience, is culturally more difficult—hence more ambiguous. He learned the drama of his situation early enough, defining himself as both the artist educated in the “English tongue I love,” in Donne and Marvell and “Spencerian vowels that elope with ease,” to quote Keats, another influence, and as the native who is mute, whose tale he will tell. But most of In a Green Night: Poems 1948-60 seemed potent largely as travelogue, even the vatic or visionary strains in bondage to the guile of local color. It was only much later, when he was perhaps following the example of Lowell, opening himself to existential or confessional motifs, the quarrels of public and private life, the burning of the city of Castries or the Biafran invasion, that his negotiations with reality began—first with The Gulf in 1970, then continuing through the autobiographical Another Life of 1973 and Sea Grapes of 1976. In these works, Walcott’s own frustrated sense of tribal culture, the lure of the primitive, his debates with Sartrean concepts of “bourgeois culture” or “revolutionary culture,” created poems of great individual merit—“Frederiksted Nights,” “Sainte Lucie,” “Negatives.” Yet others were somehow beset with a fugitive or assaultive air.

What’s notable, though, about much of The Star-Apple Kingdom is its ecumenical balance. Speech is still touchstone, but no longer so declamatory, no longer seduced by the epical. The old nagging, inventive anger has become the simpler, blunter “anger of love,” that would never “lose / sight of the single human through the cause”—be the cause proletarianism or paternalism, the “treaties and white papers” or the dynasties of “tobacco, sugar, and bananas.” Politically, of course, little is resolved. The protagonist of the formidable title poem unavailingly seeking “a history without any memory,” “a geography without myth,” “a revolution without any bloodshed,” loses during a long night of delirium the one symbol he’s clung to, the avenging spirit of “the darker, the older America,” the “raped wife, empty mother, Aztec virgin,” who turns from him—“faded from him, because he could not kill.” Nevertheless there’s a sorrowing downrightness now to even the most savaging of Walcott’s inventories, the language at once stark and decorous:

One morning the Caribbean was cut up
by seven prime ministers who bought the sea in bolts—
one thousand miles of aquamarine with lace trimmings,
one million yards of lime-colored silk,
one mile of violet, leagues of cerulean satin—
who sold it at a markup to the con- glomerates,
the same conglomerates who had rented the water spouts
for ninety-nine years in exchange for fifty ships,
who retailed it in turn to the ministers
with only one bank account, who then resold it
in ads for the Caribbean Economic Community,
till everyone owned a little piece of the sea,
from which some made saris, some made bandannas;
the rest was offered on trays to white cruise ships
taller than the post office; then the dogfights
began in the cabinets as to who had first sold
the archipelago for this chain store of islands…

In Freud it is one’s childhood that conditions us, in Marx it is one’s class, in both the self is seen as environment’s puppet. But the imagination escapes one’s environment since the imagination is a puppet sui generis—or rather it is the puppeteer: it replaces the environment, transcending childhood and class while growing out of both. And—realist though he is—Walcott insists on that transcendence, has the beleaguered sailor of “The Schooner Flight” defiantly say: “I had no nation now but the imagination,” or when remembering his family: “I loved them as poets love the poetry / that kills them, as drowned sailors love the sea.”

So too through the imagination Walcott himself can identify with figures from another shore, with the “Gulag Archipelago” as well as “the tourist archipelagoes of my South.” There is a beautiful and highly formal evocation of Mandelstam and the exile’s shadow as it floats across the “barbed-wire branches” and “winter’s breath” in “Forest of Europe”; a poem with a shrewd plaint that “there is no harder prison than writing verse,” that asks “what’s poetry, if it is worth its salt,/but a phrase men can pass from hand to mouth?” And there are Walcott’s vivid dramatizations of other epochs, whether in his variations on Roman themes in a contemporary setting, the apparitions of Antony and Cleopatra in “Egypt, Tobago,” or in his brilliantly conceived and sustained narrative, “Koenig of the River,” slyly echoing the meter of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and perhaps subverting it, a poem about the old Africa, the hunting ground of “the German Eagle and the British Lion” when “our flags sank with the sunset on the dhows,” caught at its moment of dissolution in the defeated mind of an inquiring revenant, an old missionary, a “ghost-king of rivers.”

In these and the best of the other poems—a few, admittedly, are rather slight or ornamental—Walcott has found an almost spontaneous way of speaking about History or “the pain of history words contain,” as if it were the hero or anti-hero of his world. Often he seems less a witness to the times, a chronicler of upheavals and renewals, than to the landscapes and seascapes themselves over which emerge the faces of generations, or reveries of childhood in his “star-apple kingdom” that is now “a tree of grenades,” or the travail of the sea that can bring its own sort of balm. As it does in a lovely commemorative passage on the aftereffects of a storm just before the close of “The Schooner Flight” and the sailor’s doom in the “depths of the sea” (Maria Concepcion is the sailor’s wife):

There’s a fresh light that follows a storm
while the whole sea still havoc; in its bright wake
I saw the veiled face of Maria Con- cepcion
marrying the ocean, then drifting away
in the widening lace of her bridal train
with white gulls her bridesmaids, till she was gone…

Of course throughout his career Walcott’s leitmotif has always been the natural embrace of adversity—that, and a certain nobility of spirit or elevation of tone. It is not for nothing that the flights of birds—the pelicans and men-o’-war and buzzards—form a familiar presence in his panoramas. I did not much care for his early work. Then the “nobility” seemed too ceremonious or portentous, ultimately an affectation. But happily Walcott is no longer a grand seigneur of the tropics. Most of the poems are buoyant with fact, grim with experience; yet also salutary, I think even celebratory in the older Walcott’s sardonic way. He is a poet who is now in his late forties, and even in what he elsewhere calls “the bleak modesty of middle age” there is every reason to believe he is at the threshold of his best work.

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