Tiepolo’s Hound is the third book-length poem of Derek Walcott’s four decades of work as a poet and dramatist. Walcott is a writer whose stature as a major figure of West Indian and postcolonial world literature was recognized with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. Following his autobiographical Another Life (1973) and Omeros (1990), in which Walcott transformed Homeric materials into an epic of Caribbean life,Tiepolo’s Hound in part returns to the lyric poet’s autobiographical mode. It also becomes biography, however, as Walcott interweaves an account of the life and art of the French Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) with the story of his own belated search for a detail in a Venetian painting that he had seen in an astonishing visionary moment as a young man on his first visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The book also incorporates reproductions of Walcott’s watercolors and oil paintings, predominantly Caribbean scenes but also portraits, including a self-portrait and two representations of the painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), and several European scenes.
At times these materials seem bizarrely unrelated, or connected only by the facts that Pissarro and Walcott are both artists and that Walcott’s quest in pursuit of the hound in the remembered Venetian painting is a search for a work of art. The parallels between Pissarro’s experiences and Walcott’s own life are clear. Pissarro was born on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas in 1830, and Walcott was born on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia in 1930. Pissarro’s family were Sephardic Jews who had emigrated to a Danish-ruled but largely French-speaking island that still employed slave labor, while Walcott grew up on a British-ruled but largely French- and patois-speaking island, as the descendant of both English colonists and slaves brought from Africa. To be a painter, Pissarro felt compelled to move to France and become a leading figure of the Impressionist movement, his West Indian origins largely forgotten, while Walcott, though he has spent considerable time teaching and living in the United States, was able to develop an identity as an internationally recognized writer who has played a major role in the formation of a modern West Indian literary culture.
These parallels and differences, along with Walcott’s lifelong interest in painting, would seem to offer plenty of scope for a long poem, and indeed the sections of Tiepolo’s Hound that concern Pissarro tend to be so compellingly written and for long stretches so dominate the book that the title seems oddly chosen and the poet’s quest for the hound a diversion from the poem’s central interest. The reader may also wonder why the poet is determined to journey to Venice to look for a painting he saw in New York, a question Walcott never answers. Finally, adding to the reader’s puzzlement about the poem’s title, Walcott sometimes says the original painting was by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588), sometimes says it was by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), and in the end decides that he will never be able to decide which it was and does not want to know anyway, asserting that in a sense the hound was painted by both. One is left to feel that Tiepolo’s Hound was chosen as the title simply because it is more euphonious than Veronese’s Hound would have been.
Underlying the poem’s shifts in direction and focus, though, and justifying its uncertainties, is the poem’s autobiographical core: Walcott’s wrestling with his own problems of cultural identity, which gives a tension both to his meditations on Pissarro and the quest driven by the intensity of his memory of the brush stroke representing the hound’s thigh. What does it mean to him, and what did it mean to Pissarro, that Pissarro left St. Thomas for France? Did Pissarro betray his native place? Was not France “his” too (“His name, Pissarro, hidden in the word Paris”)? What did it mean to Pissarro that as a child and young man he heard the voices of “Mission slaves// chanting deliverance from all their sins/ in tidal couplets of lament and answer”? Can their voices be heard in the melancholy rustling of the poplars in the landscapes Pissarro painted in Pontoise? One of the poem’s most frequently recurring images is that of a black dog, a “mongrel,” West Indian; versions of it both haunt Walcott and follow Pissarro. Why is Walcott also so haunted by “Tiepolo’s” white hound: Must the color have a racial significance? In Veronese’s Feast at the House of Levi, close to the original of the painting of Walcott’s vision, not only is the hound a subordinate detail in a richly represented Venetian (and also Jewish) feast, but a Moor, or Moors, stand to the side, marginal, observing. Walcott must probe at his own identification with the Moor, the figure whose relation to European culture is that of the marginal, the colonized, or even the enslaved.
In a densely tangled passage late in...
(The entire section is 2058 words.)