Derek Walcott: The Acacia Trees

12 June 2012 § 1 Comment

White Egrets(Faber and Faber 2010).

Three numbered parts, a sequence of three very approximate sonnets.  They seem to promise an argument of sorts, maybe even a socratic dialogue, as the poet’s voice in the first and third is modulated by the intervention of another voice in between.

The first is an elegy to a favourite beach, about to be turned into  ‘another luxury hotel’.  The poet mourns the transformation of ‘the wild, uneven ground’ that will result from ‘a policy / that will make the island a mall’. And the landscape already seems to know it:  ‘the breakers / grin like waiters, like taxi-drivers.’  The tone is bitter and a deliberately provocative metaphor marks its climax:

these new plantations
by the sea; a slavery without chains, with no blood spilt–
just chain-link fences and signs, the new degradations.

As I have suggested elsewhere, the comparison echoes the title of Ian G Strachan’s book, Paradise and Plantation (2002),  which argues that Caribbean hotels are modern plantations – locally-run but foreign-owned businesses that create a product for customers who live overseas, but instead of sugar or tobacco what they offer is a holiday experience in ‘paradise.’ Walcott’s poetry is sprinkled with negative images of Caribbean tourism, including a tirade against industrial-scale development in Omeros which talks of ‘the traitors / who, in elected office, saw the land as views / for hotels,’ a line quoted in another seminal study of Caribbean tourism, Polly Patullo’s Last Resorts (1996). Walcott himself has campaigned against hotel development in St Lucia, especially the complex that became (despite the protests) the Jalousie Plantation luxury resort.

And yet his relationship to tourism is complex. His biographer, Bruce King, remarked, of the ‘Spain’ sequence in Bounty (1997): ‘So much of the meaning was that of a tourist abroad.  While Walcott was a short-term tourist in Spain, a land he knew mostly before from art and literature, there has always been this tendency towards representational stereotypes in his writings.’ Especially perhaps in his poems about Europe – and White Egrets sometimes feels like a breathless Grand Tour (Barcelona, Amsterdam, London, Capri, the Alps).  There is a Spanish Series here too, where we find olive oil, galloping horses, castanets, a bell tower, a ruined amphitheatre and black-haired beauties. It’s true that Walcott is not unaware of this tendency. In A London Afternoon he frames such holiday brochure images as ‘consoling clichés’. In another poem, he hears ‘”old Europe”‘ in a woman’s voice calling forth ‘clichés [which] rise / like a flutter of starlings from the wet cobbles’ (#29) and he’s equally self-referential about his depiction of Milan, which, with its cathedral and ice cream, simply ‘extend the cliché’ (#48). Asked in a 2009 interview about the effect of ‘being a cosmopolitan traveler had on your later works’ he replied:

Once Joseph [Brodsky], Seamus [Heaney] and I decided we would make an emblem of styles to summarise our own work. I remember Seamus saying ‘bogs, bogs, bogs’. I think I described Joseph as having a skeleton of a soul at night, in winter—a kind of lonely ether. Mine, I decided, was just ‘Wish You Were Here’. There’s a lot to be said for postcards and why there are postcards.

But whether this lets him off the hook, I’m not so sure. Knowing about these cliches does not necessarily mean you transcend them. In The Acacia Trees the power of his invective – which is capped with the first section’s closing nostalgic sigh (‘I felt such freedom writing under the acacias’) – is considerably weakened by his previous admission that ‘blank, printless beaches are part of my trade’. A figure of speech, in other words, and thus perhaps not to be taken too literally. The unspoilt beach is not just a stock in trade of the poet, but of most of his readers whose acquaintance with the Caribbean will have been as (actual or virtual) tourists, accustomed to viewing the islands from the deck of a cruise ship or hotel veranda. The outsider who imaginatively – and financially – invests in such consoling desert islands when booking holidays in the sun.

The poem begins with a ‘you’, then slips into ‘I’.  And indeed the whole poem shifts between these pronouns and makes full use of their ambiguity.  ‘You used  to be able to drive ….’ it starts. An impersonal ‘you’, it seems, recalling a journey anyone would – or could – have made.  But the rest of the sentence is interrupted by a parenthesis in which the poet partly excludes himself from this potentially universal subject:

You used to be able to drive (though I don’t) across
the wide, pool-sheeted pasture below the house
to the hot, empty beach and park in the starved shade

The poet doesn’t drive.  And by telling us this he drives a wedge between himself  – a humble local who must walk to the beach – and the reader – assumed to have access to a (probably four-wheel drive) vehicle, thus specifying the ‘you’ as a distinct constituency, marked by wealth and place of origin. The second part begins with a ‘you’ also, but the diction immediately alerts us that it is not the poet Walcott speaking here:

Bossman, if you look in those bush there […]

We’ve shifted here from the language of the Nobel laureate to the vernacular of the underprivileged islander, accustomed to address people significantly better off than himself as ‘Bossman’ – habitually, but perhaps, in the context of this poem at least, with a sarcastic undertone. Warning of the presence of thieves who will think nothing of stealing money from bags left on the beach – and who will be long gone by the time the police arrive – the speaker avows he is not of their number, but rather makes a modest, but honest, living ‘selling and blowing conch shells.’    Either way, it is clear that the job opportunities that hotels are supposed to bring to local  people are not quite as dignified or as lucrative as was promised.

Is too much tourist and too lickle employment.

Noticing that his listener has gone all quiet, he acknowledges the guilt he has briefly awakened, but doubts it will trouble him for long, as his parting shot suggests.

How about a lickle life there? Thanks, but Boss,
don’t let what I say spoil your enjoyment.

This Caribbean J‘accuse – which demands that visitors acknowledge the negative impact of the tourism they are normally so content to ignore – is reminiscent of the famous opening essay of Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place. And in both cases the ‘you’ may embrace not only the typical reader of the text but the author too.  After all, it is not unknown for Walcott – who maintains closer ties to St Lucia than Kincaid does to Antigua – to stay in luxury hotels in his own country . Elsewhere, most notably in Book Six of Omeros and ‘The Light of the World’ (in The Arkansas Testament), he ruefully addresses his own complicity in the development he mourns in the first part of the poem.

But here, as we turn to the third part, returning to what might be the poet’s own voice –

You see those breakers coming around Pigeon Island
bowing like nuns in a procession?

he begins, addressing the reader more companionably – his tone has altered.  The beach now makes him think of friends he has lost, departing for who knows where, like the birds he sees taking off from the sand and the rocks.  The visit is now one of private rather than public significance and switches to the first person for the final few lines.

I go down to the same sea by another road

and this may be the same beach, or another beach, or the same one but in a different future where – miraculously perhaps – the solitude has been preserved. For, as he takes with him the books of his departed friends and opens the pages, what he sees are not the ‘men with tapes and theodolites’ he previously railed against, but those he has lost:

their distant shapes
approaching and always arriving, their voices heard
in the page of a cloud, like the soft surf in my head.

That conjunction of writing and landscape (‘page of a cloud’) is one of Walcott’s poetic signatures. It is a device that can revitalize our perception of nature by unexpectedly converting it into an artefact, but it can also signal a certain resignation, as human agency and creativity are folded into an impersonal, indifferent universe.  For all the ways his poems tear open historical conflicts and the yearning to make the world a better place, they often leave us nothing but the sea, the sky, the wind, and the light.

Walcott feels impassioned enough to denounce tourism. First, directly, in what might be close to his own voice (its point of view primarily aesthetic and ecological); then secondly, through the voice of a less privileged local (whose point of view is primarily economic). But instead of the expected synthesis which might bring the poet and the beachcomber together in a more sophisticated vision of what has been called ‘the plantation complex’, the third part appears to relinquish the challenge and retreats into introspection, ‘the soft surf in my head.’

The social life of the Caribbean is nearly always subordinate to the natural world in Walcott’s poetry – even if it is often saturated with historical and literary references. And this, understandably, is even more pronounced in his later work.  In the title poem, White Egrets, the birds stand for the world that will continue to turn long after the poet’s death, but their characteristic stabbing movement reminds him of his writing hand (they are after insects, he nouns).  Through that comparison he acquires a kind of immortality, but one in which he must eventually lose his voice.

Their heads nod ‘as they read / in purposeful silence, a language beyond speech.’  For the cacophony of human conversation and argument that does not give way to a conclusive cadence ‘beyond speech’, you would need to turn to his plays.

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