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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Sean Borodale: Notes for an Atlas

27 October 2011 § Leave a comment

Notes for an Atlas (Isinglass 2003).

This book describes itself on the back cover by means of a quotation from Robert Macfarlane, recommending it in the Guardian: ‘An extraordinary 370-page poem written whilst walking through London.’

I think ‘poem’ is the right word, though it is not written in verse. The text is left-justified, the carriage returns determined automatically by the margin rather than chosen for effect, and so must count as prose. And very dense prose at that.  Divided into twenty-five numbered sections, Notes for an Atlas is otherwise unrelieved by paragraph breaks.

And if this is not enough to daunt the reader, it invites you to step into a very strange world indeed.  Here are the opening 100 words or so:

A man walks and he speaks, and every word warps in the wind in the street. See brambles, a blackberry still as a boulder suspended among thorns. Leaves broken as sawdust, curled and torn. A man wearing black clothes walks to a car, see lips clamped  See clouds reflected on car doors. See brown eyes and clouds banked, knotted and ripped. Wind ticking a maple, scratching the leg of a twig. See cracks in grey tar. Hear a tattered blue and white flag, the shrug and the quiet crack of its cloth in a turn of the air (p7).

This is not a quirky beginning to a narrative that eventually begins to normalize. The whole poem takes the form of a transcription of  things seen, heard (and read), usually announced by subject-less verbs. Nothing makes sense, not even in retrospect. And by this I mean, the connections between the different objects and events are entirely random, juxtapositions of the close up and far away, and separated by unspecified intervals of time, distances travelled, angles turned. It is impossible for the reader to create from these fragments a space in which one can imaginatively inhabit or orient oneself.

But this is one of the most compelling books I have ever read. It is travel writing pared down to its most basic ingredients. Notes for an Atlas makes even the sketchiest fieldnotes seem over-polished and prematurely analytical even while it depends on far more considerable artifice, for it aims to recreate a degree of fragmentation that we never spontaneously experience, so accustomed we are to converting our impressions into portraits, landscapes and stories even before they take place.

The author’s own website has little to say about the technique of composition. It is just possible that Notes for an Atlas is a work entirely of the imagination, devised with only the most indirect relation to walks actually taken in London. But I find it hard to believe that any imagination wouldn’t crumble in the face of having to recreate such inexhaustible banality. The most likely scenario would be that Borodale undertook several long walks in the capital – perhaps twenty five of them – while recording his immediate impressions as he want along, possibly speaking into a microphone (that opening sentence may be a self-portrait), maybe even using a concealed camcorder.  The poem would be a – probably much worked-on and revised – transcription of these impressions.

If so, it seems likely that the original sequence of these impressions survives in the written work.  From the fragments it is often possible to deduce something about where and when they are occurring, for instance  the density of the built environment, whether the location is busy or quiet, whether it is night or day.  Deprived of proper names (which only appear in the text if the poet overhears them or sees them written down – and then only rarely), the reader struggles to identify locations and occasions, though it would appear that the poem documents a solemn public event (perhaps Remembrance Day at the Cenotaph or a state funeral) (section VI), a visit to the zoo (presumably in Regent’s Park) (section VIII), a walk through an art gallery (section XV), and an encounter with an anti-war demonstration (section XXII).  Names of businesses, streets, buildings occasionally offer clues.  ‘A giant wheel in the sky with thin spokes’ (p220) suggests the London Eye. But it would be impossible to reconstruct the itineraries followed here.

The text forces us to break the habit of reading prose that finds causality or explanation implied in the transition from one clause or sentence to the next. In fact one can not even be sure of proximity, since the focus and direction seem to be always changing. And these changes are quite unpredictable because there is no ‘I’ to lend them coherence. The poet adopts the persona of an invisible man (who never seems to see reflections of himself or hear his own footsteps, and gives no indication that he is perceived by others) who betrays no feelings or inclinations of his own. He is almost, in fact, a machine. Or an alien. And this impression is reinforced by the deliberately restricted vocabulary of the poem, which (when not transcribing the words of others) often resorts to descriptive phrases rather than specific nouns, as if to emphasize the radical innocence of his perception, referring for example to a man ‘moving on wheeled shoes’ (p241) as if roller-skates was a term he had not learned or would betray too much speculation regarding something not directly seen.

So what is the best way to read Notes for an Atlas? When I first obtained a copy of the book I did read it from beginning to end, though slowly, probably no more than ten pages a day. Perhaps there was a story here, or a mystery that would be unveiled, or some recurrent motif that I would miss if I didn’t painstakingly turn every page in order. If you take pleasure from the discipline of an exercise regime – doing just enough each day to make a difference, but not too much it becomes a chore – this approach has its benefits. But since there is no suspense, no climax, no dramatic change of key or tempo, what makes reading it possible at all is the texture of its language, which you can appreciate by dipping in and out at any point.

It’s best enjoyed by speaking it aloud, I think. Try those opening lines again, listening to the way the repeated words (‘and’, ‘see’) and word-endings (‘-ing’, ‘-ed’) give it flow, while the sentences build, getting longer, before getting shorter again. The rhythms are uneven – there is no time signature here – but there is an ebb and flow, a rising and falling, like the tide or the wind, that suits such an epic (and attracts the praise of a ‘nature wrter’ like Robert Macfarlane).

But what really transforms this poem from an intriguing, dare-devil stunt of largely academic curiosity is its imagery, particularly the way the poem is fuelled by an apparently inexhaustible stream of metaphors and similes: ‘blackberry still as a boulder’, ‘leaves broken as sawdust’, ‘clouds banked, knotted and ripped’ – the first half-page sets the tone immediately. Some of them are routine, but many may make you smile at their freshness and pertinence, and often I would be forced to pause and admire their humour or sheer audacity.  Here the labour of transcription – the work that recreates the walk on the printed page – is abundantly on display.

These are some of my favourites:

The mouth of a woman at a phone and it moves like the eye of a man trying not to sleep (p293)

And see five thin men standing against a long wall of shade in a row like guns in a rack (p300)

See a snail-sized mound of red-brown on pavement, the closed palace of a dog’s excrement (p281)

Sometimes they come thick and fast you can hardly keep up with them:

… and a chocolate wrapper lies curled on its side like a sleeping man. See the grain of stone flecked with shapes like grains of wheat blackened with fungus and cast iron railings rise planted in stone like the edge of a wheatfield.  A man’s head swivels its neck, see the eyes are sharp like a hawk’s. Pass black window glass like obsidian sheets. Glimpse a dark garden, dark green and black leaves like carved jade and slate, lacquer of rainwater … (p252).

At such moments there is almost a doubling – even eclipsing – of the immediate everyday world apprehended by the senses, with another world populated by anonymized memories, dreams and ghosts. Into a mundane London street arrives a sleeping man, a wheatfield, a hawk, carved jade, obsidian sheets from the cultures and histories filtered by the poet’s imagination. Somehow, in the midst of what seems to be a hyper-naturalist transcription of strenuously un-interpreted sense impressions, emerges a magical realism of considerable beauty.

The books ends with a farewell, the parting dialogue between a man and a woman.

And a man with a woman smiles and she smiles and they both stand quiet in smiles as many walk in different directions. Air thick with fumes in a grey. Hear, ‘God no.’ A dark hand lands like a clamp on a wrist with a shake. hear ‘Wonderful to see you, is she all right?’ Hear, ‘Great, absolutely.’ Hear, ‘Well I think we have actually, it’s nerve-wracking … oh.’ Hear, ‘God, well I hope so … bye bye.’ Hear, ‘Bye bye Murph’ (p372).

I wonder if there isn’t a hint of mischief here.  As if this is also an imagined exchange between author and patient reader, who, having read thus far, might admit to finding the experience ‘actually … nervewracking’.  And the author, of course, would be bound to reply: ‘God, well I hope so.’  And thus they part, on the best of terms.

Jen Hadfield: Blashey-wadder

20 October 2011 § Leave a comment

Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe, 2008).

I cherish many of the poems in this collection. They rarely offer an argument or even take narrative form. Hadfield gives us radically fragmentary moments or impulses that obey only the logic of a list or a roll of film.  ‘I turn the camera on dazzled / Everything -‘, she writes in Glid, a line that might – almost – have come from Emily Dickinson. She also draws on the (often repetitive) idiom of (sometimes cod-biblical) chants and prayers – riffing on the Lord’s Prayer, for example, or, in one case, Burns’ ‘Selkirk Grace’.

There are many precious images of the inanimate becoming animate (‘The fields wore cows like fuzzy Hombergs’)(Kodachrome), and an especially memorable evocation of the sound of a mandolin (‘Crumpled notes would prang out of those paired strings, a salvage-metal sound, like freight cars screeling over a crossing’) (The Mandolin of May). I enjoyed the pleasing miscellany of things in a poem about coveting one’s neighbour’s stuff (Thou Shalt Want Want Want), the phrase ‘hair like loose voltage’ (‘witless…’), and some intense observations of rockpools (Daed-traa).

But Blashey-wadder really stands out for me, condensing the diverse pleasures of the volume on a single page. It begins with a hint of a story (‘At dusk I walked to the postbox’) that locates the poet in space and time – referring to ‘the storm that must’ve passed you earlier today’ (addressing the reader as an honorary local) and the up-close sensations of that walk with a glorious zoomorphism:

and I crackled in my waterproof
like a roasting rack of lamb

The stanza consists of three clauses (whose subjects are ‘I’, the storm, ‘I’ again), a structure adopted by the poem as a whole, from which the embodied self withdraws for much of its length, returning only at the end when once more it is situated indexically (‘North’, ‘yesterday’).  The anaphoric ‘and’ that begins each clause is the key link word throughout, suggesting less a chronological sequence of events, than unpredictable shifts of attention that might occur in any order.

And so we flick through snapshots that feature waterfalls, puddles, seven cows, a rockpool, all bearing the effects of the gale.  An overpowering nature dwarfs the banal human traces on the landscape – the postbox, a byre, ‘a punctured football reel[ing] around and around’.  But the contest is complicated by a more defiant presence:

a gritter, as far as I could tell,
rolled a blinking ball of orange light
ahead of it, like a dungbeetle
that had stolen the sun.

The gritter is the one thing that is unaffected by the wind, and is indeed designed to make sure the weather doesn’t interfere with routine.  Yet while it might look like it has ‘stolen the sun’, the poet chooses to puncture its pretensions by suggesting that it simply looks like a insect which has.  Like the poet in her cagoule, it has become animal.

‘Blashy-wadder’ is – the glossary tells us – a Shetland term for ‘wet and unsettled weather’. And the sense of the local is maintained by dropping a proper name (‘Bracadale’) mid-way, before the vernacular returns at the end, as the poet turns to her dog, remarking on his prescience in one last metamorphosis that blurs the human and the animal, the immediate and the not-yet:

he saw we had it coming –

and I mean more’n wet weak hail
on a bastard wind.

What that ‘more’ is – we can only imagine.  The implication may be merely metereological, though it could refer to any catastrophe on the horizon, measured on a personal or planetary scale or anywhere in between.  Being overly elliptical is always a risk, but Hadfield gets away with it in these last two lines, partly because it is set against an empirically rich backdrop and – as if to compensate for its vagueness – uttered in what I fancy to be a conspiratorial low voice, or perhaps a Tom Waits growl.

Bad weather ain’t the worst thing that can happen.

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