you write far from the threshing harvesters
folding wheat like a girl plaiting her hair,
far from Russia's canals quivering with sunstroke,
a man living with English in one room.
The poem speaks to the exile of the many nameless people who have been forced from their homes to come to America:
the tributary of emigrants whom exile
has made as classless as the common cold
Walcott's speaker himself experiences a sense of exile in his native Caribbean as he faces waves of tourists, likening exile to a sense of being imprisoned:
The tourist archipelagoes of my South
are prisons too, corruptible
Another person facing exile, this an internal exile to Siberia, is the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. In exile, he suffered as he wrote, for he:
shook, and every
metaphor shuddered him with ague
However, Walcott's poem also celebrates the ability of art to transcend exile and bring people together. The poem connects those suffering forced exile in Russia's Siberian gulags with the forced displacements of Native Americans in the United States, stating that pain can reach across cultures. A Soviet exile's poem brings
circles with light
in a brown room, in barren Oklahoma.
The Soviet's "gulag archipelagos" are like:
the long Trail of Tears [that] runnels these plains
as hard and open as a herdsman's face
Conflating (putting together) Brodsky ("Joseph") and Mandelstam's "ague," Walcott writes:
but now that fever is a fire whose glow
warms our hands
Walcott's theme is that the artist's exile is painful but that great art transcends the pain and brings warmth and a sense of community to others.