The Arkansas Testament

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

In exploring their homelands, poets often sacrifice their ability to feel unfettered unity with their native brothers and sisters. For example, because James Wright examines and records in poetry his heavily industrialized Ohio, he gives up a portion of his gemütlichkeit—his sense of hominess. If Wright had been completely at home in Martins Ferry, Ohio, he may never have noted the slow despair of its residents’ lives in “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.”

Like Wright, Derek Walcott lovingly offers his homeland to readers. Perhaps more than any other living poet, however, Walcott is preoccupied with a sense of separation from his homeland (St. Lucia, the West Indies), and in The Arkansas Testament, he attempts to find his place among his fellow islanders. Short of doing so in the book’s first section, entitled “Here,” the poet searches other lands, in the “Elsewhere” section, not so much for home, but for goodness and justice. Walcott never finds what he is looking for; in fact, readers would be suspicious if he did.

Walcott’s predicament, as he presents it in the first section, is that his demonstration of love for St. Lucia in poetry is useless, for the islanders’ language is not a written one. In the first six poems, written in lean quatrains, the poet arrives at this dark understanding and erects pillars, in appearance and function, upon which the rest of the collection is built.

In “The Lighthouse,” the first poem, Walcott’s speaker walks through Castries, a seaport on St. Lucia and Walcott’s birthplace, to the New Jerusalem Bar, where he meets an old friend who has left the island only once in his fifty years. The man is completely comfortable, at home, but the speaker is ill at ease. He sees dots to be connected everywhere, unstated questions to be answered: Stars appear as “those to-be-connected dots/ in a child’s book” and “Black hands/ in a corner slap down dominos.” The speaker seems to wonder if his love for St. Lucia and for its people must always be bitterly incomplete.

In “Cul de Sac Valley,” Walcott sets out to answer this question. Since his demonstration of love is poetry, he attempts to give the written word to the people by using linguistic and poetic terms in his description: A dog is “a black vowel barking”; “Chalk flowers . . . scribble/ the asphalt’s black slate”; and a girl “climbs straight/ up the steps of this verse.” In “Roseau Valley,” however, Walcott questions the use of this gift: “my lines/ led to what? They provided/ no comfort like the French priests’ or the Workers Hymn.” Later in the same poem, he attempts to legitimize his poetry by marrying it to the land: “my gift . . . still sweats with the trickling resin/ in a hill’s hot armpit.”

The fourth poem, “A Latin Primer,” is a digression in which Walcott recalls his development as a poet, his groping for a voice and for a resolution to his conflict. When he sees a frigate bird, “that slowly levelling V/ made one with my horizon,” he understands that the process of finding his place as an islander is as important as the process’ result. The image of the frigate bird and its meaning charge the poet with purpose, and in “The Villa Restaurant,” he celebrates the commonplace of his environment—the waitress whose breasts are “clay goblets”; “the blue gesso behind her/ head is my Sistine Chapel.” In “The Three Musicians,” the speaker’s voice at times blends with that of Madame Isidor, the poem’s main character. In this humorous, ironic retelling of the story of the three wise men, the speaker’s slips into the island dialect signal the momentary union he feels with his heritage.

This union, however, is fleeting. Walcott surrounds the pillars of his first six poems with a balanced gathering of what makes up St. Lucia: the history, religion, and superstition; the people and places. Yet he returns several times to the nagging feeling of homelessness which preoccupies his art, and in “The Light of the World,” perhaps the collection’s most powerful and moving poem, Walcott’s speaker is at once united with and isolated from the people around him. The setting is a mini-bus filled with the music of Bob Marley, and at moments the speaker seems unself-conscious, just another person heading somewhere. He enjoys the music and quietly lusts after a young woman who is humming along with it: “I imagined a powerful and sweet/ odour coming from her, as from a still panther,/ and the head was nothing else but heraldic.” Soon, however, an old woman trying to catch the transport breaks the speaker’s peace. “Don’t leave me stranded,” she says, and he thinks of abandonment, of how he has abandoned his people, and, hence, of how he is abandoned:

I got off the van without saying good night.Good night...

(The entire section is 2022 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

The Library Journal. CXII, October 15, 1987, p. 84.

The Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 6, 1987, p. 1.

The New Republic. CXCVII, November 2, 1987, pp. 46-47.