Robert Edison Sandiford - Issue 112

Partaking of a MasterThe Bounty by Derek Walcott

The title poem of The Bounty, Derek Walcott's first collection of new poems since winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992, refers to more than the legendary boat captained by William Bligh, mutinied by Fletcher Christian and said to have brought the breadfruit tree to the Caribbean. Among its lines is the bounty of matemal love, which is the milk of kindness. There is the bounty that is booty, also known as treasure. There is the bounty that is one's spiritual reward, on earth as it is, presumably, in heaven. Then there is the bounty of the work itself.

This is not to suggest undue hubris on Walcott's part (though he has been accused of this and much else beside). It is, rather, stating what is hoped for, if not expected, notably from a book which sports one of the author's lush watercolours. And to read The Bounty is to partake of the work of a master of his craft. Walcott, who favours an alternating rhyme scheme here, is rhythmic, flowing. He makes versifying sound easy.

Be sure, he has his burdens. Some poems, impressive as they are technically, verbally and intellectually, remain unmoving. And this, in part, is due to odd fits of wordiness, causing images to tumble over each other into a not always elegant, prosaic heap.

But this is not chief among Walcott's concerns; The Bounty bears a different load. Much of his poetry - specially his mature work-is an attempt to retell the history of Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, thereby embracing all of humanity. His scope in The Bounty is no less epic than it was in his Odyssey-inspired Omeros (1990) or the more modest The Fortunate Traveller (1981).

Yet this history is his, too, recalling his raw, autobiographicalAnother Life (1973). The St. Lucian has often expressed pride in the fact that he is of mixed West African, Duth and English ancestry. So his words resonate most in his brief takes on places he has known, like Italy, New England, Trinidad and Tobago, or Spain. He captures the landscape in the literature and vice versa, observing poetry is "all echoes, all associations and inferences."

The Bounty conveys the poet's yearning for the country of his birth in particular. People tend not to associate concreteness with poetry. They confuse the allusive with the elusive. But the power and grace of poetry depend on the precision of its images as much as on the integrity of its lines or the certainty of its rhythm. And "I am not home till Sesenne sings," he writes, "a voice with woodsmoke and ground-doves in it, that cracks/ like clay on a road whose tints are the dry season's,/ whose cuatros tighten my heartstrings."

From the outset, Walcott acknowledges his memories are like a mirage: "Between the vision of the Tourist Board and the true/ Paradise lies the desert where Isaiah's elations/ force a rose from the sand." This begs a couple of questions. If the Tourist Board and Paradise are an illusion, what is "real"? If "memory is less/ than the place which it cherishes," what to make of his homesick reminiscences?

In poem after poem, Walcott meets these challenges head on. For it's often startling what can be retrieved even from "a life of incredible errors." In his case, these include "small red berries shaped like abell"; "the sound of la rivière Dorée"; "the scent of hog plums"; "the long-shadowed emptiness of small roads." The bounty of his native St. Lucia, in other words, their beauty and truth magnificently crystalline.

At 67, counting playwrighting among his various accomplishments, there are now more years behind Walcott than ahead of him. Inevitably tainting his nostalgia is a sense of mortality.

As is the case with similarly blessed writers of his generation (fellow Nobel laureate Saul Bellow comes to mind), Walcott finds himself in the uneasy yet necessary position of reevaluating the event of his life in the closing days of the 20th century. It seems to him, amid "so many deaths, nothing short of a massacre/ from the wild scythe blindly flailing friends, flowers, and grass," that "the only art left is the preparation of grace." He can't help it. The passing of the Russian poet and comrade Joseph Brodsky, another Nobel recipient, is one of the many that has left him shaken:

since the fear of the infinite is the same as death
all I am saying is that the dread of death is in the faces
we love, the dread of our dying, or theirs;
therefore we see in the glint of immeasurable spaces
not stars or falling embers, not meteors, but tears.

Despair, however, is not a sentiment in which Walcott indulges. "There is symmetry in all this, or all fiction is lying." The poet can name his pains as well as his pleasures. And this is how we, like he, better understand things: by naming them but also by ordering them and finding a meaning within the links they form.