If-as John Updike once said-“Fame is the mask that eats the face,” then one can make the argument that Derek Walcott’s casing began at his boyhood house. In book 2 of Another Life, his autobiographical epic poem, he arrives at his old door an acclaimed yet struggling poet. At the sight of its remnants, the memories overwhelm him
” Old house, old woman, old room
old planes, old buckling membranes of the womb
breathe through your timbers, gasp
arthritic, curling beams
cough in old air
shining with moats, stair
polished and re-polished by the hands of strangers
die with defiance with your grey flecking eyes”
He proceeds to go up to her room and be consumed by what he sees: the creaking sunlight, the memory of her cigarette smoke, the individual landscape that only he could render on the page-a mélange of old worlds and new, the present and the past, folk and a modern language alchemized into gorgeous lyric stanzas that are broken by a single line
“Why should anyone should weep for such dumb things”
The common narrative in regards to Walcott’s career is that this was part of his hero’s journey home, and Life the marker of journey from apprenticeship to maturity. The close reader unacquainted with the popular mythology of the man might not be so willing to tag these scenes-or Walcott’s early works-as stepping stones. The Caribbean of Walcott’s early poems is often spoke in the context of an environment that he “mastered” in life just as much as he mastered his craft on the page.
Yet time and time again in the early poems a Walcott emerges that cannot be swept away in a conservative narrative. There are numerous early poems like “Choc Bay” where Walcott tries to juxtapose the beauty and poverty of St Lucia and finds that:
“All that I have and want for words
to fling my griefs about
and salt enough for my eyes”
And “Return To D’enerry: Rain” where, upon seeing the old shacks of his neighborhood, he writes:
“Where is the passionate hatred that would help
the black, the despairing the poor, by speech, alone
the fury shakes like wet leaves on the wind
the rain beats on a brain hardened to stone”
And in “Crusoe’s Island”, where he becomes painfully self-lacerating about his allegiances to numerous heritages and tradition,
“past thirty now I know
to love the self is dread
of being swallowed in the blue
of heaven overhead”
And, the sardonic, anti-surrealistic “Landfall, Grenada” where-talking to himself-he says:
“Its moods held no mythology
for you, it was a working place
of tonnage and ruled stars;
you chose your landfall with a mariners
It is startling to read this Walcott again-this sensitive, pensive young man of his early books who juxtaposed the traditions of English literature and his Caribbean heritage, tried to find his voice and footing as an immigrant in America, and struggled to adjust to the sea of life without the rudder of a father. It is also startling to see the “mature” Walcott of Life constantly kneecap him. If the early poems were guided by scenes and tensions he doesn’t have the answer to, Life is rhetoric buffeted by his stunning gift for lyric and imagery. Summed up, the younger Walcott moves, the grown man does nothing but dazzle.
In contrast to the majority of his body of work, Life is Walcott presenting his youth as almost serene in its rituals of masculinity. The landscape that bedeviled him in such poems as ‘A Far Cry From Africa and “Codicil” becomes a pleasant school, his friendship with fellow painters depicted as Christ like, his first relationship with “Anna” his first love, transformed to a garden variety muse/spirit/stage in his life. Walcott’s breathtaking eye for imagery and scene and his compellingness as a participant observer in these poems carry them a good ways, but one will have a hard time losing sight of the fact that Walcott is selling you something. Life is the first showing of the moderate conservative superstar he would become, and I won’t tell you that the voice could often be magical. It is also-for me-the place where he started to decline as a writer.
I won’t tell you that Walcott’s career after another life was a failure. Sea Grapes and The Arkansas Testament, Walcott’s critical surveys of his life at the time, are two of the best books of his career. But they worked because the poems-mournful, quiet, heartbroken, and at times apologetic-went against the brand that he made, and that brand loomed larger and larger over his work. In mourning a child( Adrian), trying to move on from a divorce(Love After Love), and crying over friends that he said he never cried over in Life (Grapes), he wasn’t giving a poetry system a soothing image, nor speechifying in defense of the western canon. He was just creating art.
When he did play to his image the poems got progressively worse. With its easy sea narrative, it’s overdone bawdiness, and it’s more than casual misogyny The Star Apple Kingdom barely raises above Ivy League locker room talk. If Walcott’s rewrite of The Odyssey (Omeros) is dented by the extra shot of machismo he puts into it, it is wrecked by his insertion of himself into the narrative in the last part of the book. The prose poems of his later work would become increasingly formless-bottoming out in the right wing hallmark card that was Thanksgiving– and White Egrets is trashed by a rage toward the women in his life that comes perilously close to the untenable sexism that caused him to beat all of his ex-wives and get kicked out of two ivy league colleges because of sexual harassment.
At the end of Tiepolo’s Hound, Walcott’s intertwining the story of Camille Pissaro’s voyage from St Thomas with another one of his rich man jaunts, the author, after being spurned by a blonde in a bar, calls on the ghosts of the painter for a melancholy, passive aggressive bro cry
“then all the sorrows that lay heavily upon us
the repeated failures, the botched trepidations
will pass like the lights on bridges at village corners
where shadows crouch under pierced constellations”
The subject matter (“A blond old enough to be my granddaughter won’t fuck me. Waah!”) Is tacky. The language-melancholy, buried in a rhetoric of denial-is almost tragic. Like many an old macho man at the bar, he is crying for something other than the subject matter he wants you to believe. The career of Derek Walcott is a summation of that distance: the costs of a grand older man’s answers to the questions of the soul that his younger self asks. That a conservative school of poets like the answers the older man gives is without question. In this writer’s opinion, however, a poet doesn’t answer questions, they write poems; and the younger Walcott-in his tumult and ‘apprenticeship’- wrote more of those than the old man. And better ones.