I Once Gave My Daughters, Separately, Two Conch Shells by Derek Walcott

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I Once Gave My Daughters, Separately, Two Conch Shells Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

This untitled poem is the fiftieth poem in a sequence of fifty-four poems that constitute the midsummer to midsummer movement in the collection Midsummer (1984). It invokes Walcott’s central themes of language, exile, and art. Yet to these the theme of love must be added. In this poem, as in so many of his other poems, the image of the ocean is primary. In the poem’s twenty-three lines, Walcott moves from a memory of two conch shells that he gave to his daughters to the poetry that he wrote when he was the age of his daughter Elizabeth to his mature poetry. The poem then shifts to a memory of his father and the irony of his name. The poem concludes with a layering of movements, each reflecting the others.

As with all the poems in this collection, the poem’s lines are long, often containing more than fourteen syllables. Such long lines allow for rumination, the overall tone or mood of this poem. The poet speaks directly to the reader, offering both confession and a sense of thinking aloud. The long lines also suggest an inclusiveness that may approximate prose. Most central, however, is their mnemonic quality.

The poem begins with conch shells “dived from the reef, or sold on the beach”: gifts from the sea. In their “wet/ pink palates are the soundless singing of angels.” The term “palates” is a homophone for the painter’s palette; thus, Walcott has combined the angelic sound of the sea, part of the mouth that allows for speech and poetry, and painting. He recommences the poem, linking himself with his daughter, not through a gift but through remembering what he did at her age. This memory forces a realization of his distance from youth.

He reflects on his poetry, stating that his poems “aren’t linked to any tradition/ like a mossed cairn,” but that each poem belongs to the collective memory and unconscious, as well as to the world’s collective history. His poems belong to the sea insofar as they are also natural processes. He relinquishes his poems to the sea or the collective memory. Walcott asks of the poems to let him enter them as his “father, who did watercolors,/ entered his work,” becoming “one of his shadows,/ wavering and faint in the midsummer sunlight.” Walcott asks that his works contain a shadow of his presence, thereby providing a stay against oblivion. He sees his grandfather, who named Walcott’s father Warwick, after Warwickshire, inscribing the continuity of the memory of one’s origins in a name.

“Ironies are moving,” Walcott writes, and then immediately translates that emotion into physical action:

  Now, when I rewrite a line,or sketch on the fast-drying paper the coconut frondsthat he did so faintly, my daughters’ hands move in mine.Conches move over the sea-floor. I used to move

(The entire section is 693 words.)