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COLLECTED POEMS 1948-1984 by Derek Walcott (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $25; 516 pp.)

April 06, 1986|Arthur Vogelsang | Vogelsang's most recent book of poetry is "A Planet" (Holt, Rinehart & Winston)

The islands of the West Indies curve from Florida to South America like a hook with two thick shafts, Cuba and the Bahamas at the top and smaller islands like Aruba, Grenada and St. Lucia (where the poet was born and grew up) at the bottom. Wars, at first between the Carib Indians and various European powers, then among the Europeans themselves, extended for centuries until, on St. Lucia, the British prevailed at the beginning of the 1800s, continuing the practice of importing large numbers of Africans as slave labor for the sugar cane plantations. Descendants of these persons are today the majority of the population of St. Lucia, they are poor and have few choices, and they speak a French patois or a Creole dialect of English.

It is this very last matter that is as important to a poet as any of the rest of it, the language of one's country being a sea of not only the nouns and verbs and rhythms available for use but the sea of thought in which one swims, the sea of emotion one forms, in effect what one is. If there is no useful written tradition of that language, as is the case with the Caribbean and Derek Walcott, what a poet reads to learn how to write and what a poet writes might sound like reggae, but with Walcott it sounds like this:

Again brutish necessity wipes its hands

Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again

A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,

The gorilla wrestles with the superman.

I who am poisoned with the blood of both,

Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?

I who have cursed

The drunken officer of British rule, how choose

Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?

Betray them both, or give back what they give?

How can I face such slaughter and be cool?

How can I turn from Africa and live?

or, like this:

The midsummer sea, the hot pitch road, this grass,

these shacks that made me,

jungle and razor grass shimmering by the roadside,

the edge of art;

wood lice are humming in the sacred wood,

nothing can burn them out, they are in the blood;

their rose mouths, like cherubs, sing of the slow


of dying--all heads, with, at each ear, a gauzy


It is a poetry dipped in the British literary tradition. In the whole book, it is lush, ironic, controlled, enigmatic, flexible, pleasing to the ear. But overall it is more . . . what? . . . American . . . than it is European:

Up at Forest Reserve, before branches break into


I looked through the moving, grassed window and

thought "pines,"

or conifers of some sort. I thought, they must


in this tropical heat with their child's idea of


Then suddenly, from their rotting logs, distracting


of the faith I betrayed, or the faith that

betrayed me--

Descriptions reverberate with theme, spirit and palpable life, and though sometimes heavy with learned allusion that one sees in no landscape on Earth but the landscape of classic paintings.

Several of the poems are trapped in autobiography, as if details of the poet's life were valuable to us in themselves, several poems are self-consciously long but most are intense lyrics that provide a rare reading experience, a realistic affirmation of life, and an embrace of what's outside of life (art and death):

Where's my child's hymnbook, the poems edged in

gold leaf,

the heaven I worship with no faith in heaven,

as the Word turned toward poetry in its grief?

Ah, bread of life, that only love can leaven!

Ah, Joseph, though no man ever dies in his own


the grateful grass will grow thick from his heart.

This admirable, accessible poetry is often a mixture of anger and compassion, individual isolation and the blending of two cultures. In the book, these continuing polarities shoot an electricity to each other which is questioning and beautiful and which helps form a vision all together Caribbean and international, personal (him to you, you to him), independent, and essential for readers of contemporary literature on all the continents.

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