''A Far Cry from Africa'' as the Poet's Personal Credo
A Credo in Isolation
Even the title itself of Derek Walcott's lovely poem ''A Far Cry from Africa'' suggests that the author is writing about an African subject and doing so from a distance. It's an apt title, to be sure; Walcott is of African descent but was born and raised in what we might call the southeast corner of the American sphere without in any way encroaching on West Indies' independence. Writing from the beautiful island of St. Lucia, Walcott feels, as a well-educated and totally independent black West Indian, that he is indeed at some distance from Africa and the brutal atrocities of whites against blacks and blacks against whites that he has been reading about in Kenya, a large African state famous for its Veldt and for its extraordinary wildlife—giraffes, antelope, even rhinoceros.
The title ''A Far Cry from Africa'' may have a second meaning in addition to the obvious geographic and personal sense the author feels. The title also seems to say, ''well, look, this is a far cry from the Africa that I have been reading about in descriptions of gorgeous fauna and flora and interesting village customs.’’ And a third level of meaning to the title (without pressing this point too much) is the idea of Walcott hearing the poem as a far cry coming all the way across thousands of miles of ocean—the same routes, perhaps, as the Dutch ships of the late seventeenth century—to land in his accepting ear on the island of St. Lucia. He hears the cry coming to him on the wind. He writes, in the first line of his poem,''A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt / Of Africa.’’ He has seen photographs of Kenya. He knows that light brown and yellow, of various shades, are two of the most prominent colors of this large African state; they are veldt colors, and there are lions out on the veldt.
"Kikuyu," in the second line, is the only African word in the poem. The Kikuyu were a Kenya tribe who became Mau Mau fighters in a grass-roots effort to oust the British colonial administration of Kenya. Walcott, as if mesmerized, describes the Mau Mau fighters as moving with extraordinary speed—they know the geography of their country and they ''Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.'' The use of the word batten is interesting; it generally means to fasten or secure a hatch on a ship. The upsurge of violence is justified in some ways perhaps, but what rivets Walcott's attention, because he is a well-educated man and a humanist, is given very simply in the following image, still from the powerful opening stanza: ‘‘Corpses are scattered through a paradise.’’ Walcott, born on St. Lucia, a lovely island with a fairly low economy, would like to believe that Africa is just as paradisal and peaceful as the West Indies.
Most of Walcott's poems since the early 1960s have been written in very open but quite controlled language. ‘‘A Far Cry from Africa’’ is such a compressed and tightly structured poem that the author tends to cover the ground he wants to talk about point by point and sometimes with what we might call caricatures, or images verging on caricature. ‘‘Only the worm, colonel of carrion cries: / Waste no compassion on these separate dead!’’ He follows this surprising image with two very sharp lines about the foolishness of statistics and alleged political scholars who want to discuss fine points. And then he ends his powerful opening stanza by saying, ''What is that to the white child hacked in bed?’’ Or to Kenyans, he says, who are being treated as if they were ''expendable.'' What appears to horrify Walcott partly in the case of Kenya is that the conflict and savagery taking place are happening on the basis of color; his reaction is almost Biblical in its unusually compressed and angry personal credo. At no time in this poem does he waste his time referring to any particular historical agreement. He sees the tragedy as essentially human tragedy, and the violence on both sides as essentially inhuman.
(The entire section is 8,889 words.)