(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

In this gathering of fifty-four numbered poems (corresponding to the author’s age), his seventh collection published in the United States, Derek Walcott continues to be concerned with problems that have preoccupied him for more than two decades: his relationship as a Caribbean colonial to European culture and literary traditions; to the United States; to the English language; and the resulting doubleness of his identity. Of mixed blood and cultural heritage, he is unself-consciously at home neither in his native West Indies, nor in the United States, nor in the Europe that colonized his homeland, bastardizing and compromising the native culture. As a poet of two worlds, an exile wandering between cultures and traditions, he risks being regarded as a colonial in the mother country while seeming, in the Caribbean, to pay too much deference to Europe and the United States. Despite demonstrated virtuosity, he is not entirely at home in either British or American English and risks becoming a “mulatto of style.”

Walcott renders his divided self in mirror images and other versions of doubleness. Returning from the United States to Port of Spain, he looks into his “first local mirror” and thinks of “The child who died in me.” Gazing at the alleys and shacks of the town, he notes evidence of American influence and remembers “that phrase in/ Traherne” (III). Later, “My double, tired of morning, closes the door/ of the motel bathroom; then, wiping the steamed mirror,/ refuses to acknowledge me” (XI). Remembering a local storyteller and acknowledging her literary influence (“Her leaves were the libraries of the Caribbean./her voice travels my shelves”), he employs the fact that he is a twin in an image of his double identity: “She was the lamplight in the stare of two mesmerized boys/ still joined in one shadow, indivisible twins” (XIV). Elsewhere the northern and southern hemispheres suggest his divided self: “The hemispheres lie sweating, flesh to flesh” (V).

The felt lack of a literary tradition in the Caribbean accounts for the many images in which the natural and cultural landscape are seen as parts of a text. Returning to the West Indies on a plane, he notes “the sharp exclamations of whitewashed minarets” and “pages of earth, the canefields set in stanzas” (I). A tadpole wriggles “like an eager comma,” a snake coils “in an ampersand” (XXIV). He observes “the ideograms of buzzards/ over the Chinese groceries” (VI); “lightning’s shorthand”; “the sea repeatedly tearing up paper”; “the stones crawling toward language every night.” He is dissatisfied because “Language never fits geography/ except when the earth and summer lightning rhyme” (IX).

Traveling somewhere in the Caribbean, he is, typically, at home yet not at home. “This is my ocean, but it is speaking/ another language, since its accent changes around/ different islands.” Here too the tendency is to impose a literary tradition on a place that has none: “The boulevards open like novels/ waiting to be written. Clouds like the beginnings of stories” (XLIII, Tropic Zone/i). Here he sees language employed ideologically, not for artistic purposes. He writes of “opposing alphabets” in city squares where “children lie torn on rubble for a noun” (XXII).

At home, he finds little to sustain or guide him. Poverty and death are ominously near: “Our houses are one step from the gutter/ and the doors themselves, usually no wider than coffins.” Walking about his city, he recalls “a childhood whose vines fasten your foot.” He wanders with the knowledge that “exiles must make their own maps” (VII), aware of the imposition of empire, noting it is but one step from the schooner basin in Port of Spain to “the plate-glass fronts/ of the Holiday Innand from need to greed/ a few steps more.” He considers the swiftness of change from one way of life to another: “The world had no time to change/ to a doorman’s braid from the loincloths of Africa.” He sees nature thrusting up beneath the veneer of Western influence: “It is not hard to see the past’s/ vision of lampposts branching over streets of bush,/ the plazas cracked by the jungle’s furious seed” (IV). Writing to a friend in Rome, he contrasts his Caribbean world with the culture and traditions of Europe: “you are crouched in some ancient pensione/ where the only new thing is paper, like young St. Jerome/ with his rock vault.” Instead of sacred domes, Walcott has “Corals up to their windows in sand”; instead of St. Mark’s, “gulls circling a seine” (II).

This felt lack of history and literary tradition accounts for the many references and allusions to European, British, and American writers. Anxious and uncertain about his literary ability, Walcott feels both a part of the lush, organic Caribbean world of light and sea, foliage and teeming life—and at the same time alienated from it: “leaveskeep trying to summarize my life./ Under the brain’s white coral is a seething anthill./ You had such a deep faith in that water, once.” His deference to writers secure in a tradition causes him to envy even their fatal illnesses: “Perhaps if I’d nurtured some divine disease,/ like Keats in eternal Rome, or Chekhov at...

(The entire section is 2157 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Booklist. LXXX, February 15, 1984, p. 841.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, April 6, 1984, p. B9.

Georgia Review. XXXVIII, Summer, 1984, p. 402.

Hudson Review. XXXVII, Summer, 1984, p. 331.

Library Journal. CIX, January, 1984, p. 97.

The New Republic. CXC, January 23, 1984, p. 31.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, April 8, 1984, p. 14.

Poetry. CXLV, December, 1984, p. 171.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, December 9, 1983, p. 42.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LX, Summer, 1984, p. 90.