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'No Man Ever Dies in His Own Country' THE ARKANSAS TESTAMENT by Derek Walcott (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $14.95; 117 pp.)

September 06, 1987|Caryl Phillips | Phillips is the author of "The European Tribe."

Last year, Derek Walcott's "Collected Poems" appeared in a 500-page volume. It seemed to me then, and his new collection of verse confirms my feelings, that it may have been a somewhat premature assembling of the poet's canon. "The Arkansas Testament" not only finds Walcott examining some of his old themes, but doing so with youthful invention.

Born in 1930 on the small Caribbean island of St. Lucia, Walcott now divides his time between Boston and Trinidad. He is part of the poetic gang of four (Josef Brodsky, Czeslaw Milosz and Seamus Heaney being the other three), the internationally displaced poets who teach in America.

His poetry draws on an awareness of the lack of any viable West Indian literary tradition or consensus of culture. He emerged from an often intellectually restricted environment and managed to master the vocabulary of the English language and to explore the rhythms of syntax, the power of metaphor and the intellectual game-playing of allusion. But the problem of a West Indian writer working in a tradition tied to British imperialism has always been present in Walcott's mind.

\o7 The riot police and the skinheads exchanged quips

You could trace to the Sonnets or the Moor's eclipse

("Midsummer" 1984)

Walcott's seven previous collections have been steeped in an ambivalence toward the outside world and its relationship to his own native land of St. Lucia. The clash of Europe and colony, language and landscape, the "old world" and the "new world" of the Americas; these have been his themes. That there are always choices to be made implies a rejection of something and an inevitable sense of loss. In "Midsummer," one felt a growing awareness of mortality, which bestowed upon his poetic journey the qualities of a pilgrimage. The volume ended shrouded in overwhelming forfeiture.

. . . though no man ever dies in his own country

the grateful grass will grow thick from his heart

"The Arkansas Testament" is a collection of 39 poems divided into two parts--"Here," referring to the author's native Caribbean, and "Elsewhere." The voice of the Caribbean half of the volume moves easily between the received European tradition and the local oral one. The author is able to employ both when necessary. This accounts in part for Walcott's distinctive tone, pitched somewhere between the rhetorical and the vernacular.

as I watch a low seagull race

its own cry, like a squeaking pin

from the postcard canoes of La Place,

where the dots I finished begin,

and a vendor smiles: 'Fifty? Then

You love home harder than youth!'

Like the full moon in daylight, her thin,

uncontradictable truth.

The high point of "Here" is the poem "The Light of the World," a sensitive and heart-rending account of a Saturday-night bus journey from the town marketplace back to a small house on a country beach where the speaker is staying. On this serene, moonlit evening, the speaker, having walked about the town he was born and grew up in, now "lusts" peacefully after two girls on the bus and falls in "love" with a third. Here is a perfect opportunity to feel in tune with his past. But no, thoughts of discord disturb the tranquility of his communion with his people. The truth is painful, ever-present, and reduces the speaker to tears.

I, who could never solidify my shadow

to be one of their shadows, had left them their earth,

their white rum quarrels, and their coal bags,

their hatred of corporals, of all authority.

The moment when he should belong is the very moment he is most acutely aware of the fact that he no longer does.

In "Elsewhere," Walcott, the poet who did not want to leave home but at the same time needed to aspirate his mind, addresses the West. He pays homage to a past master, in a eulogy addressed to W. H. Auden.

It was such dispossession

that made possession joy,

when, strict as Psalm or Lesson,

I learnt your poetry.

He dedicates the title poem "Elsewhere" to another "master," Stephen Spender. But with each poem, it becomes more clear to what degree Walcott remains a West Indian, with Europe or America claiming attention only inasmuch as they cast light back upon his central dilemma. He is able to write:

I remember the cities I have never seen

exactly. Silver-veined Venice, Leningrad

with its toffee-twisted minarets. Paris . . .

A man of Walcott's classical education and intellect is sensitive to the power of these centers of international culture, but one senses of Walcott that he has come to understand that (as Seamus Heaney, to whom this volume is dedicated, once wrote) the provincial state of mind, which needs the affirmation and approval of the metropolis, is not as important as the parochial imagination, which has no doubt about "the artistic validity of its own parish."

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