White Egrets: Poems by Derek Walcott. New York: Farrar Straus, 2010. ISBN 9780374289294
Reviewed by William Doreski
The egrets of the title of Derek Walcott’s new book are not only members of the heron family but old,
white-haired poet-personae mulling over relationships with familiar and unfamiliar places and asking
“stabbing questions” about themselves and everything else. They are also, in a moment of self-doubt,
Walcott’s “torn poems.”
Walcott has always been a poet of place. His previous work has testified to the beauty and
banality of half the globe. This new book, a sequence of brief interlinked narratives, some titled,
some merely numbered, extends his wanderings to Capri, Spain, Sicily, and London. In a memorable sub-sequence
set in Italy he visits Leopardi’s house:
We toured its rooms in awe of such suffering, whose
stairs constricted its walls, whose climbing aria
was Silvia and solitude; under dark beams,
passing bound volumes in funereal file,
we heard of the great poet’s crippled dreams . . . .
However, the strength of the larger sequence does not derive from literary tourism but from its
larger sense of witness. As a Caribbean poet Walcott has always seemed either in a self-imposed exile
or simply adrift, like the characters in his epic Omeros. In his new book, this wandering circles about
a clear purpose: plumbing the self he confronts daily in the mirror, the face of an unsatisfied artist:
I come out of the studio for blue air
that has no edges, for a sea white with lace,
shaken again by still another failure.
My mirror seems to want some other face.
The usual bristling halt, my joy upset
by some rhetorical passage in the painting . . . .
The painting is his own, of course. Walcott has painted for many years, and his work adorns the
jackets of many of his books—but not this one, which offers only title and the author’s name against
a plain blue-gray background. Rhetoric has invaded his visual work, so “The failed canvases / turn
their shamed faces to the walls like sins.” As a representational painter (“naïve / narrative painting,”
he calls his work) Walcott has felt distanced from the mainstream of contemporary art, but now age
has shaken both his skillful hand and his confidence.
Yet what fails in painting succeeds in poetry. Walcott’s strong visual sense has always served his poetry
well, and his rhetorical gifts shine. The opening of the sub-sequence “The Spectre of Empire” displays
both of those qualities at their best:
Down at the Conradian docks of the rusted port,
by gnarled sea grapes whose plates are caked with grime,
to a salvo of flame trees from the old English fort,
he waits, the white spectre of another time,
or stands, propping the entrance of some hovel
of rumshop, to slip into the streets
like the bookmark in a nineteenth-century novel,
scuttering from contact as a crab retreats.
Conrad in the opening of The Heart of Darkness describes Brussels, the seat of King Leopold’s
cruel empire, as a “whited sepulcher." This biblical reference becomes a “white spectre” of witness—the
ghost of Conrad himself, whom the speaker “just missed… as he darted the other way.” Conrad is not only
the bookmark in a nineteenth-century novel but the author of several of them. Although Heart of Darkness
appeared in 1902, it critiques with terrible severity nineteenth-century notions of empire. These notions
helped shape (or deform) the culture of St. Lucia, where Walcott was born and which didn’t achieve full
independence from England until 1979. This rich allusiveness has always characterized Walcott’s work, and
it has enabled him to brace his relentless (if often very subtle) questioning of Euro-American cultural
supremacy with an aesthetic understanding of its glories.
Conrad’s “scuttering” ghost suggests the figure met in the rubble of
bombed London in the second part
of Little Gidding; but in a larger sense Walcott’s sequence owes much to Robert Lowell’s
Notebook 1967-1968. The opportunistic structure of sequence within sequence, anchored by a
single first-person voice and singular perception, the self-questioning, the broadly associative aesthetic
all suggest Lowell’s influence. But Walcott notes that “imitation is its own aesthetic”; and his work
is hardly imitative anyway. Walcott avoids the nervous juxtapositions, the cramped rhetoric of Lowell’s
sonnets, and allows his poem the leisure to unfold its effects with his familiar syntactical grace. While
Lowell generates urgency, Walcott allows witness to develop a tone that is not resigned but rueful,
disappointed at times, content at others. More than from any of his previous work, we gain here a sense
of what we can imagine it feels like to be Derek Walcott seeing the world in all its complexity and beauty,
while looking with grim humor into his white-haired, white egret self.