White Egrets

by Derek Walcott

reviewed by Jonathan Hart

Derek Walcott, who has written a wide range of plays, essays, and poems, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992, two years after Omeros, his epic of his native St. Lucia, in which he responds to the stories of Homer, Virgil, and Dante. Walcott is a major figure writing in English, whose work ranges from plays, such as Dream on Monkey Mountain (1967), to poems, including the collection under review here. Walcott has a rare gift for combining an understanding of the relation between the colonial and the postcolonial with a talent for poetics. Perhaps his greatest gift is to take the various languages and cultures of the Caribbean—indigenous, African, and European—and create works of art that appeal to many across the globe. Walcott can make English sing in many ways.

If Omeros, which may be the culmination of Walcott’s work as a poet, represents a journey beyond the Antilles to North America, Africa, and England, White Egrets, his fourteenth collection of poems, is a subtle and quiet book that has some beautiful moments. The white egret is a striking migratory bird and a central image in Walcott’s book, but it is nowhere to be found in the first poem of the collection, where Walcott likens chessmen to terra-cotta warriors. The first poem sets out a world of changeless chessmen and changing light, the music of the wind above the silent figures. Instead of a white egret, the poem ends with a blackbird. Walcott weaves these images together, as in the second poem, where breakers produce a spray like a cat that scrambles up a wall and falls into a foam, which, in turn, is like the heart coming home.

In “White Egrets,” the fourth poem and a long piece with eight sections, the birds of the title make their appearance. The first section finishes with a kind of anthropomorphism that connects nature and humans, who “learn how the bright lawn puts up no defences / against the egret’s stabbing questions and the night’s answer.” The speaker of the second section sees that the egrets will “be there after my shadow passes with all its sins / into a green thicket of oblivion.” The heart, mind, and soul of the speaker connect with the birds in a kind of metaphysical reach of image, not unlike a latter-day John Donne: “The bamboos plunge / their necks like roped horses.” For the speaker, the egrets remind him of an image from a childhood book: “the pharaonic ibis” with wings as “certain as a seraph’s when they beat.” The imagery builds in this poem, the egret astonishing “the page of the lawn and this open page,” while the poet likens his pen to the egret’s beak. In the eighth and final section, there is talk of Hieronymous Bosch to supplement the earlier allusion to Audubon—one the religious painter of nature, the other the artist as naturalist. The egrets inhabit both. The poet or speaker likens the bird to Eumaeus, Odysseus’s swineherd, who, without recognizing his master, is the first mortal to welcome Odysseus back to Ithaca. The birds are spectral white like snow and “seraphic souls.” This final combination of the human and avian has a religious or elegiac cast in the old tradition of the literature of friendship. There is almost a sense of Michel de Montaigne here, and the beautiful and cumulative imagery in Walcott’s title poem celebrates humanity and nature in poetic harmony.

The rest of the poems amplify the images and concerns of these early poems, and do so best when they are taut in diction and syntax, less powerfully when they are loose and conversational. Walcott is a playwright and is thus accomplished at dialogue and the conversational voice, but it is uncertain whether this tactic is as effective in lyric. “The Acacia Trees” captures the idiom of local voices, whereas the sixth poem, which addresses August Wilson, begins with “August, the quarter-moon dangles like a bugle / over the brick cantonments of the Morne.” “Sicilian Suite” mixes colloquial easiness with strong images: “Bats fretted the treetops then pitched like darts / from the pines.” In this suite, beauty, love, and nature present themselves in dilemma and meditation. “Spanish Series” continues the poet’s preoccupation with images and the relationship between art and life. For instance, the first part opens with “Plod of a hoof in blood-crusted earth. Clatter of a rivulet over bleached stones,” and the second part with “A train crosses the scorched plain in one sentence.” And so the metapoetics—poetry calling attention to itself as poetry—persists.

It is no surprise that Walcott speaks of the winding down of empire. The poem “The Lost Empire” opens dramatically: “And then there was no more Empire all of a sudden,” while the beginning of “The Spectre of Empire” combines the literary, historical, and natural worlds:

Down the Conradian docks of the rusted port,
by gnarled sea grapes whose plates are caked with grime,
to a salvo of flame trees from an old English fort.

England, the center of empire, is part of this poetic world, as seen in “A London Afternoon,” but that world is also located in nature: “Words clear the page/ like a burst of sparrows over a hedge.” In Poem 22, Walcott returns to his island and calls attention to the relations among economics, politics, and nature:

I will share the world’s beauty with my enemies
even though their greed destroys the innocence
of my Adamic island.

Love of a woman and love of poetry are the themes of Poem 32, which ends: “let the torn poems sail from you like a flock / of white egrets in a long last sigh of release.” Walcott makes use of his gift for imagery to end Poem 42, for Lorna Goodison, with a variation on the meeting of word and world:

This prose
has the sudden smell of a gust of slanted rain
on scorching asphalt from the hazed hills of Jamaica.

And so Walcott begins Poem 54, the last in the collection, with the words, “The page is a cloud,” which brings to a close a book whose imagery weaves together sound and silence, darkness and light, and many other wisps or threads, and leads out into the whiteness of a page, like a white egret, “As a cloud slowly covers the page and it goes / white again and the book comes to a close.” The reader migrates with the poet on a journey well worth taking.

Published on June 20, 2013