Midsummer

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2157

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...

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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 Yalta/ my gift would increase.” Still, he knows that “to curse your birthplace is the final evil” (XXIX).

In the United States, Walcott longs for the sea in which he realized he had lost faith while he was home. “Going to the Eastern shuttle at LaGuardia,/ I mistook a swash of green-painted roof for the sea” (XXXIV). In Boston, where blocks are “long as paragraphs,” he is acutely aware of literary traditions and reputations—“the shade of Henry James” (XXX). Teaching, he is aware of the achievement of Robert Lowell: “Cal’s bulk haunts my classes” (XXXII). He feels self-consciously black in New England and observes “white harbors/ white spires, white filling stations” (XXXI). In Boston, pedestrians “move in schools, erect, pale fishes in streets;/ transparent, fish-eyed, they skitter when I divide,/ like a black porpoise heading for the straits” (XXXII).

Such are the outlines of Walcott’s dilemma. He is at home nowhere, with an ambivalent relation to literary tradition, and acutely aware, in his midfifties, of the passage of time: “before you look, a year’s gone/ with your shadow. The temperate homilies can’t take root in sand” (XXVI); “O Christ, my craft, and the long time it is taking!” (XIII).

The nature of the dilemma, however, is not as important as Walcott’s manner of dealing with it, which he often does brilliantly, heroically. He keeps a faith in the power of art to salvage life from time. Since he is not a direct heir to a single, well-defined literary tradition, he accepts his wandering as a perpetual exile, accepts the necessity to construct his own map. Walcott has the grace and wit to parody his situation. Well aware that he defers to European history and traditions, he also knows that “No language is neutral” (LII), that “a raceless critic is a primate’s dream.” If he has been ambivalent toward the land of his birth, he cannot deny who he is and where he comes from: “you shall not find peace/ till you and your origins reconcile; your jaw must droop/ and your knuckles scrape the ground of your native place.” He imagines in poem LI the reception of his work and its continuing influence on a posterity consisting of a mongoose, mandrills, elephants, lizards, and chimpanzees:

a dew-lapped lizard discourses on “Livesof the Black Poets,” gripping a branch like a lectern for betterdelivery. Already, up in that simian Academe,a chimp in bifocals, his lower lip a jut,tears misting the lenses, is turning your Oeuvres Complètes.

Walcott does not resolve his dilemma; he endures it, sometimes thoughtfully, humorously, painfully. Often imagery suggests that his past holds him prisoner in the present. In a hotel room, he observes how afternoon sunlight falling through window bars stripes a sleeper like a prisoner. In a motel in England, he feels “like a drummer selling colored poetry,” like a primitive among the cultured, his métier labor on a chain gang. Staring at the “charred cave of the television,” its image flickering on his brow, he imagines himself “the first Neanderthal/ to spend a whole life lifting nouns like rocks” (XL).

Walcott’s task is not to resolve his dilemma but to give expression to it, to see and say, thereby illuminating his own experience and the experience of others. This he does well. He is particularly adept at recording the imposition of empire upon local culture. In a kind of hyperbole, he sees this imposition even in details of nature: In the Caribbean, even the “jellyfish trails its purple, imperial fringe” (XXIV).

Nowhere is he more successful in expressing the felt presence of empire than in his rendering of American influence on the landscape, culture, and people of his native place. In poem XXVII, Walcott blends statement, detail, and image in a subtle and brilliant poem. Noting that “Certain things here are quietly American,” he enumerates details: a chain-link fence that separates a beach from a baseball park; an airstrip with white Cessnas; the “brown, functional hangar” which resembles those of the World War II military occupation; bulldozers gouging out a hill. The American presence is so pervasive that a pelican coasts “with its engine off,” like the Cessnas. The sea is corrugated like “sheets of zinc”; even the rain that falls is “American rain.” Walcott knows that while he is an observer, he also is a participant in the increasing Americanization of his island: “My own corpuscles/ are changingfast.” He senses “fealty changing under my foot.”

Midsummer has stylistic and structural faults that have been noted in Walcott’s earlier work. Sometimes there is a discrepancy between the high tone of his diction and the ordinariness of his subject. Occasionally his images and figures, dense and rich, nevertheless have a centrifugal tendency, flying away from any center into incoherence. His personification of aspects of nature is too frequent and easy.

Walcott’s rhymes are not always successful or even functional. Full rhymes in abcb patterns alternate with slant rhymes (“breaks”/“bricks,” XXXVIII) and occasional couplets. There is no sense of stanza construction, however, and rhymes are sometimes internal (“fish-eyed” and “divide” in the same line in poem XXXII). At other times, rhymes fall at such distances from one another that it becomes questionable whether they function as rhymes at all. Where distance combines with slant rhymes, where the angle of the slant is great or even synthetic (“accept the”/“scepter” in poem XLVIII), the rhyme achieves nothing. Macaronic rhymes, which consist of foreign words rhymed with English words or phrases, such as “lederhosen”/“cause in” from poem XLI or “la muerte”/“shirt A” from poem XLIII, Tropic Zone/i, might be theoretically justified as part of Walcott’s subject or theme—the dilemma of living in two worlds. In practice, however, the result is questionable.

Walcott is at his best when his language is adequate to his observations and insights but not rhetorically in excess of them, as in poem XXVII, “Certain things here are quietly American” and poem XLIV, “I drag, as on a chain behind me.” If he is sometimes derivative of William Butler Yeats or some other admired poet (as in “the sodden red rag of the heart”), he is also capable of arresting images of his own making: “those hopping buzzards/ trailing their torn umbrellas in a silvery drizzle” (XLIX). He is capable too of making the reader feel, through revealing detail, the reality of social, political, and economic situations, as when, writing of life after a revolution in the Caribbean, he notes “that the smallest pamphlet is stamped with a single star./ The days feel longer, people resemble their cars/ that are gray as their uniforms” (XLIII, Tropic Zone/vii). He can also take his own situation, that of a colonial under the influence of foreign empire, and raise it to a metaphysical level: “my own prayer is to write/ lines as mindless as the ocean’s of linear time,/ since time is the first province of Caesar’s jurisdiction” (XLIII, Tropic Zone, ii).

Despite the faults and blemishes of individual poems, Midsummer slowly gathers power. Much of this power derives from the genuineness of Walcott’s predicament. He is not to be confused with the alienated, isolated sensibility whose work is foredoomed to solipsism. The isolation of this wandering exile has the power, paradoxically, to draw together people with experiences that parallel his own. In a world where cultural and economic imperialism has resulted in an increasingly global civilization of a certain kind, which uproots, unsettles, or overwhelms local cultures, Walcott gives expression to experience that is both personal and universal. The map which he makes of his personal exile also maps the reality of millions of people.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 56

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.

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