Pacific Rim Review of Books

[ Back to Issue Features]

White Egrets

George Elliott Clarke

White Egrets
Derek Walcott
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28.00

According to Internet sources, the egret—or heron—symbolizes balance, self-reliance, and tranquility in enduring vicissitudes and pains. Surely the 1990 Nobel Laureate in Literature Derek Walcott knows this symbolism. Indeed, in his new book’s titular poem, he writes, “Accept it all with level sentences, / with sculpted settlement that sets each stanza”: Observing the egrets, his persona anticipates “that peace / beyond desires and beyond regrets, / at which I may arrive eventually.” Yes, now an octogenarian, the poet faces—let it be distantly still—the proof of his mortality. But he is aware of it, for others have given proof of theirs. Inescapably then, White Egrets (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $28), partakes of the twilight realm of elegy, the mix of nostalgia and sorrow that voids our world of argument and strife. In its fading away, those who matter most to the poet appear vividly—larger than life—colossal figures, in whose presence diurnal reality dwindles, making way for dream and memory. Thus, Walcott images the deaths of friends, or their revivification in recollection, as being kin to the visual behaviour of egrets and hills:

… Some friends, the few I have left,
are dying, but the egrets stalk through the rain
as if nothing mortal can affect them….
Sometimes the hills themselves disappear
like friends, slowly, but I am happier
that they have come back now, like memory, like prayer.

Tellingly, the very appearance of White Egrets is grey: the dust jacket, the grey-washed photo of the poet (“egret-haired viejo”), the print upon the page. We meet the grisaille of fog, of oblivion, of the vagaries of memory. Even history is only “immortal greyness.” At the close of the book, “a cloud slowly covers the page and it goes / white again,” but it is the grey-whiteness of shadow, “the dial of time.” Clearly, Walcott views humanity—we busy, grasping fools—in the light of his own autumn, his private dusk, while remaining, as Poet—as deathless as the language.

The substance of this collection is the something-nothing of a shadow—that living spectre that dies with us. Walcott’s persona declares he’s an “old man in the dimming world.” Indeed, if his persona in these newest, latest poems is anything like the man himself, Walcott is suffering from diabetes, watching his weight, and recalling those he liked and loved—family, lovers, friends, other writers and painters—those who have passed away, but also “come back now, like memory, like prayer.” After all, “they are seraphic souls, as Joseph [Brodsky] was.”

Yet, and here’s the—‘body’—rub: The virile man still looks with lust upon “An average beauty, magnified to deific, demonic / stature by the fury of intellect, / a flat-faced girl with slanted eyes and a narrow / waist, and a country lilt to her voice.” He complains, “you’re too old to be / shaken by such a lissome young woman…”; he dubs himself a “grizzled satyr.” But he also admires Roberta: “storm-haired, full-lipped, with axe-blade cheeks.” His attitude here—the old man desiring, the old man lusting—is William Butler Yeats’s too, and Walcott knows it. He should not go gently into Dylan Thomas’s ‘good night,’ not while he has breath and desire (and, for him, the physical noun is indivisible from the abstraction). Yeats had his Steinach monkey-gland operation to recharge his ‘heat,’ but Walcott has—or only admits to having—his heart, his eyes, his will/desire. (In any event, ‘Jacko’Keats was wrong: Woman is truth, Woman is beauty, and that is all we need to know.)

In old-school, African-American parlance, to be ‘grey’ is to be mixed-race, part-black, part-white, and that is Walcott’s being, or division, and a central inspiration in his oeuvre. Now he is ‘grey’ in age as he is in ‘race,’ and so has the wisdom to insist, “light simplifies us whatever our race or gifts.” Aging also has a whitening effect, as he suggests in “20.” Still, Walcott elegizes, especially, black writers and painters he has adored all these decades. The African-American playwright August Wilson, the African-Canadian-Jamaican novelist John Hearne, the Martiniquan poet Aimé Césaire, all receive their tribute poems. Yet, sweet it is to read, in one line, the names of those pioneering African-American painters—“Horace Pippin, Romare [Bearden], Jacob Lawrence….” How gracious to grant them their due! But Walcott understands he must also speak to our time, and so there is a poem for US President Barack Obama: “Forty Acres” should have been Obama’s Inauguration poem. It refers back to the emancipation promise—never kept—that ex-slaves would receive ‘forty acres and a mule.’ But it telescopes forward to suggest that the broken promise has instead become an “impossible prophecy” fulfilled, that crowds part “for their president,” just as soil parts for a plough—or “the lined page” parts for a pen. Another poem, “44,” endorses Obama: After a haircut in an African-American barbershop, Walcott announces, “I feel changed, like an election promise that is kept.”

The single ‘raced’ personage who seems to attract Walcott’s undiluted scorn, though he goes unnamed, is his compatriot, Caribbean-born, Nobel Laureate in Literature V.S. Naipaul (dubbed “Nightfall” in a mid-career, Walcott poem). Although, in “46,” Joseph Conrad—no ally of the Third World—is referenced (for his sense of “the emptiness” of jungle and bush and even “our pathetic, pompous cities”), it was Naipaul who wrote in 1962 that the West Indies had created “nothing.” It is difficult not to see him, then, as the butt of Walcott’s irate oration: “all the endeavours / of our lives are damned to nothing by the tiring / catalogue of a vicious talent that severs / itself from every attachment, a bitterness whose / poison is praised for its virulence.”

The collection’s loosened, elegiac sonnets, bound neither by pentameter nor the fetish for fourteen lines, do make use of rhyme, a flexible ababcdcdefgefg, plus uncountable variations that refute the scheme just set down. Walcott’s rhymes are often subtle, or only (deliberately) partially realized, to maintain a conversational ease, the sort of smooth, American utterance that Wallace Stevens exemplifies. Yet, given Walcott’s flawless ear, his precision in hearing the sound and sense of words, it is impossible not to read White Egrets as ‘Light Regrets.’

Certainly, the poet has a few. The persona admits, “I treated all of them badly, my three wives.” There’s also a “beloved” wounded by his “caustic jealousy.” He recalls and alters a line from King Lear: “smell your hands, they reek of imagined crimes.” In third-person, he recognizes “how often he had failed / with women.” The “old phrase ‘Peccavi. I have Sind,’” comes to his mind. There is even sorrow for “the torn poems [that] sail from you like a flock / of white egrets in a long last sigh of release.” Nicely, Walcott declares, “egrets / … are the bleached regrets / of an old man’s memoirs….”

White Egrets is Derek Walcott’s 16th collection of poetry, excluding his dozen-plus plays (which are, in truth, verse dramas), but including that singular epic, Omeros (1990). It is quietly masterful, though lacking the verbal pyrotechnics of The Bounty (1997) and Tiepolo’s Hound (2000). Nevertheless, though Walcott himself wonders “If it is true / that my gift has withered,” his lines unfurl silkily, shimmeringly classical, as in this elegy for a friend: “the full grief will hit me and my heart will toss / like a horse’s head…. / Love lies underneath it all though, the more surprising / the death, the deeper the love, the tougher the life…. / Your death is like our friendship beginning over.” His verse seems as plain as water, then as romantic as wine, and, next, as sassy as acid. Dramatically excellent, too, is the imagery (as customary): “Watch how spray will burst / like a cat scrambling up the side of wall, / gripping, sliding, surrendering; how, at first, / its claws hook then slip with a quickening fall / to the lace-rocked foam.” The sustained achievement of that metaphor is astonishing, as is this reflection: “Thatis the heart, coming home, / trying to fasten on everything it moved from / how salted things only increase its thirst.” Naturally, too, echoes abound of other voices, such as those of Shakespeare, Conrad, the once-supreme British canon established so effectively by the once-supremacy of British cannon.

Walcott cannot be Walcott without musing on empire and its language/literature and its déjà vu loss. The twilight of the man’s life sees him recalling that schoolbook empire, now long-gone, upon which the sun was said to never set. He corrects the record: It is the sun itself that “never sets.” Still, these lyrics remind us that Walcott has always been a poet of travel: Maybe it comes from his being raised in the shadow of an empire that declared England the Mother Country that all ‘subjects’ should yearn to see; or maybe it comes from growing up on an island: from there, wherever you look, there’s an exotic somewhere elsewhere. Thus, in White Egrets, the poet writes from the vantage point of Santa Cruz, California (near Monterey), apparently; but also definitely from Sicily, Spain, Italy, London, New York City, Capri, Amsterdam, Barcelona, as well as, in one poem, Switzerland, and, in others, likely his native St. Lucia. This traveller with an eye for landscapes, letters, and ladies—examines them and memories (the scripture that defines us), both amusing and haunting.

Walcott is already a Poet among the Poets and Poetry. He thus properly alludes to Yeats, another indisputably great poet, and poignant and yearning also in his grey, white, twilight age. But the shadow of another poet—indisputably disputable, another poet who perhaps wrote his best when he was most deservedly broken, and who lived to write still into old age; his shade also touches these pages, here and there: Ezra Pound, the imprisoned ‘traitor’ of ‘The Pisan Cantos’ (1945), scrutinizing ants in his ‘Gitmo’-style cell, speaking with resignation and humility, writing his renunciations and his regrets. When Walcott notices “Like this ant [is] this hand,” or eyes “a beetle on its back,” or deems his mind “an ageing sea remembering its lines,” or views sparrows that “line antennae like staves,” it is easy to conjure up impounded Pound, bookless, recalling favourite works, jotting down the quotations, or taking the nature and speech around him for his ready subjects. Walcott’s “21: A Sea- Change,” in its particular repetition, echoes, not “Ariel’s Song,” but Pound’s “What thou lovest well” from Canto LXXXI.

The special witness of White Egrets—as is true also of ‘The Pisan Cantos’—is that poetry is at its most profound when it seems so simple. It is the gospel that solemn immortals leave to cleric and laity alike, one that exacts a life of sacrifice.

George Elliott Clarke’s Blues and Bliss: The Poetry of George Elliott Clarke (2008), edited by Jon Paul Fiorentino, received the 2009 Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry. His latest work is The Gospel of X, a chapbook issued by the Montreal-based Vallum Society for Arts & Letters Education (