A Week in Walcott • “Jean Rhys”

Image: Sargassum, posted at Flickr by CameliaTWU under a Creative Commons License.

It begins and ends with a blank page.

If you’ve been following these entries for #AWeekinWalcott, you’ll know this is the final one. It’s the point at the wake where the folding chairs have been stacked, the cheesepaste sandwiches consumed, the cauldron of Hong Wing coffee dregs scrubbed out. All that remains is you and your private haunting.

In Walcott’s “Jean Rhys”, which you can read here at Goodreads, there is a biography of a life ordered by hauntings: that of Dominican novelist Jean Rhys, whose Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) was a damning indictment of the exotification of Jane Eyre‘s “madwoman in the attic”. Walcott’s poem contemplates Rhys’ girlhood in needlepoint, as an interloper might peer through the miniature apertures in the latticework, watching processions of aunts parading under a gibbous moon. What you espy is a way of life “beginning to groan sideways from the axe stroke”, its sickly and deceptively strong tendrils clinging to the yellowing hems of tradition and flinty, archly-codexed grace.

Into this world of secrets and slipcovers and subterfuges is the young subject born, a product of sickness and fever-imaginations, of old colonial affectations stewing in the lush Dominican heat. The child-Rhys feels herself outsidered, succumbing to the oppressions of parlour and petit-point, but knows her own future will be significantly more drawn to the flame.

What pieces of you survive in a place that feels predisposed to choke you out? This question isn’t endemic only to Wide Sargasso Sea, in which the lust-flustered Mr. Rochester (the novel never names him, but his identity is clear as a clean-mirror reflection) damns the island and his wife:

“I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.”

In the novel, the white husband who has married into what he perceives as savagery is quick to other both Antoinette Cosway and the island that made her. Wide Sargasso Sea gives the last laugh to the island and to Antoinette. It proves that a place can armour itself against colonial attack and indolence; a place can cultivate a savage intuition of itself that chokes out even the mightiest of attempts to topple it.

The crux of understanding human relationships to geography in Wide Sargasso Sea is not only in seeing the place as Rochester sees it. It involves spending time on the island — and then in cardboard-uncomfortable England — as Antoinette. Arguably, expositionally Antoinette can show you more than Rochester ever could: how the young girl-outsider struggles with placehood; how red and black ants; razor grass and snakes; rain that soaks to the skin — all of these are minor savageries better than the ill fortune of knowing other people.

White or not, people who belong to islands can comprehend this native terror. Walcott certainly comprehended it in his lifetime, and he makes room in “Jean Rhys” for Rhys the girl-child to comprehend it: at any point in time you must be ready for an island to devour you whole. What, in the wake of that, is the best you can offer?

In this poem, there is a decaying world, shivering malarial and febrile on the edge of a needle-point. With teeth bared against this colony of disease, curling into itself, there is a bay below “green as calalu, stewing Sargasso”, and a young girl whose hand is married to Jane Eyre, prophesying her own future. It is, in its way, the beginning of a biography, and also the ending of one.

It seems fitting to end #AWeekinWalcott here. “Jean Rhys” is the poem of Walcott’s that has served me, and served me, and served me: solemn, warning, quietly haunting like a ghost slow-moving over the savannah, or sailing across the sargasso sea. It’s a beginning, and an end. It’s how the girl-child grows, and how the house burns down.

May we all begin, grow and burn so well.

A Week in Walcott • “The Spoiler’s Return”

Mighty Spoiler
The Mighty Spoiler, image via Commonwealth Arts.

Maybe the art of satire is calculating how hard a slap can be dealt to another’s face. The force of the blow depends on the intention of the satirist: is it the uppercut of censure, the right hook of reform, the backhand blow of merciless mockery? Many contemporary Trinidadian satirists do not move me with the force or pseudo-finesse of their blows. They confuse cleverly valued instruction with cheap nihilism, and are airborne by the force of their own weary, newspaper-column bloviations.

I fare better with the Mighty Spoiler, whose kaiso rang out with both rowdiness and relevance. He sang about the worst things in ways that drag a fishwife-laugh from deep in my belly. The art of Spoiler’s satire understood that if you wanted to educate ‘the people’, you needed to begin every song with remembering you were one of them, and parking your arse accordingly.

Walcott slips into the dead master calypsonian’s skin and sits on a Laventille wall-perch in “The Spoiler’s Return”, which you can read here at Guanaguanare: the laughing gull. As in life, so in the poem, Spoiler’s been dead these several years — but Lucifer himself has sent Spoiler back for a two-week recon mission. The target? Trinidad, Limer’s Paradise.

In a bleakly cheerful march of heroic couplets, Walcott-as-Spoiler bullpistles the island, telling the truth the dead kaisonian was known for in his life and lyrics. Walcott calls on the popular lyrics of Mighty Spoiler’s own best-recognized verse, in references that summon King Bedbug the First, wielding his crown and mite-mitre. There is so much within these lines that runs red with “lyrics to make a politician cringe”; by drawing on Spoiler as the poem’s vehicular narrative embodiment, the poet shows us his hand where calypso’s power is concerned. David Rudder’s rabidly beloved “Calypso Music” (1986) knows there’s a correlation, deadly and dire, between the loss of chantwells and the pressure of jamming in red, white and black. When our griots go, we falter and fracture from the inside, spewing out Made in China carnival bras and crooked State contracts.

Like Rudder does, like Spoiler did, this poem sings us a song to ourselves that we can’t countenance, and so refuse to look square in the eye. “The Spoiler’s Return” is a call-out to the gayelle of ourselves, telling dutty truths in language richly colourful, visceral, scatological. It is the chain-up that birthed so many chain-ups, the ballad of the ‘we like it so’s, the ‘we jamming still’ granddaddy hawking and spitting from his rocking chair.

The poet’s speaker calls on satirists of the age — the “old brigade” of  Martial, Juvenal, and Pope — to make his meaning pellucid. It’s a Walcottian truism, not an anomaly, that drawing on classic references doesn’t diminish the Caribbean core of a poem’s blueprints. It’s a lesson in audacity perhaps more than it is a measure of respect. The canon doesn’t need our deference, as Walcott’s Omeros or The Odyssey: A Stage Version prove: they insist on our bold and resistant acts of remixing. This is what “The Spoiler’s Return” does, high on a hill in Laventille. It brings us kaiso’s tongue, one side laced in scotch bonnet pepper, the other gilt-covered, and marries it to Chaucerian form.

If the poem drips with censure, it also lilts with desperate love. In it, our phantom ranconteur spreads his knowledge of the island over its towns and countrysides like holy water flicked out of a puja kalsa, covering the corbeaux-lined La Basse, “the firelit mangrove swamps, / ibises practising for postage stamps.” For Port of Spain, the speaker reserves the sharpest derisions one saves for a place that has broken a heart, shat on its shards:

“all Frederick Street stinking like a closed drain,
Hell is a city much like Port of Spain,
what the rain rots, the sun ripens some more,
all in due process and within the law.”

If you eh laugh, you go cry, and Lordess knows that in Trinidad, sometimes it feels like if you eh laugh, you go dead. So listen, then, to the dead, and their calypso-clarions of warning. This is satire worth chanting well, gloved in a spectral singer’s tattered straw hat, or slung like sneakers over East Dry River telephone wires.

A Week in Walcott • “Map of the New World”

Image: Chaucer’s Astrolabe, posted at Flickr by Viewminder under a Creative Commons License.

The closest I got to scientific study was the dream of being a cartographer. The maps I made in my secondary school Geography classes were painstaking, devoted to precision and the accuracy of measurements-to-scale. The making of maps was its own cracked science to me, because I understood that even the most precise map was an approximation of a landscape or littoral in flux. Nothing could ever be set down as it was, with compass and chart. All you could create was a scientific chimera of a world in motion, and be guided by that.

This marked my earliest reflections on the turmoils of a scientific life: how your precision could be thwarted by forces beyond your control; how integral to the scientific process it then becomes to never veer far from the fixed mark, to use the data available to you to create the truest version of the world discernible with mathematics and sight.

In “Map of the New World”, which you can read here at The Kenyon Review, Walcott trains his omniscient narrator’s eye on these very maps in motion, of how they delineate and distinguish our Caribbean space. It is a poem attentive to the rumblings and rhythms of monsters: in section one, the narrator’s focus is on dragons, who “with webbed hands, serrated fins, / circled this unknown sea.”

If we cannot depend on a fixed Caribbean basin to turn up each time in our maps, then we can chart our waters by the dragons who once dwelled here: who, if you listen close to the poem, live here still, tangle up in History’s webbed skein. Again and again, Walcott’s poems point us to the lived reality of the sea as the antithesis of innocence. It is a passageway for human carnage, a palimpsest for dragon claw and slave shackle, indenture-bolt,  blood and oil. Wherever you can swim, some part of history sinks deep, shipwrecked and submerged, ghosting off the tides of what you think you know.

Ibi dragones, therefore is two sides of the same coin at once, balancing on the tip of your expeditioner’s tongue: it signifies these islands as bivalently imposing and inspiring. If you’re a modern-day conquistador, beware: there be dragons here. If you’re a native, rejoice: you hold the maps and myths and sulphuric fire required as a warning to all intruders.

In the second movement of the poem, the speaker widens the scope of their spatial notations of Time, the ocean and human discovery. Now, joining the dragons to mark time’s passing are gnashing horses; “adept goats on crags”; “the figurations of storks”. We survive through animal nature, as dots on a capricious map. Caprice may be the only way we survive, despite the competencies of our mariner’s astrolabes. Again, we run into the paradox of scientifically charting a world that insists fealty to a science of constant transition, changing faster than we can mortally envisage it.

We have, the speaker insists, met the New World when it was already anything but new. The first and most appropriate response to this is wonder. The concluding stanzas of the poem are a succession of concentrated visual potencies. The one that strikes me swiftest between the eyes says “From the black anvil of the promontory / the sparks fly up like stars.” Here, in one line of verse, the poet holds in his hand the revelation of sea voyages; the arcane marriage of man’s industry and Nature’s astonishingly beautiful indifference.

It would do us well, “Map of the New World” insists, to remember that the world was never new to dragons. What can we hope for, setting out at grey daybreak with our cartographer’s instruments strapped to our backs? Over and over, as my readings of Walcott expand, I come to the conclusion that the answer is: Witness.

This is but one poem in an arsenal of Walcott’s that betrays and illuminates the poet’s fascination with the maritime, and the ways in which it connects, threads and porpoise-flips in and out of the arms of History, the natural world, the laws of science, art and love.

We wrench our heart’s wheels to the possibility of honouring the unknown with our sight — to say, as the schooner dips low in the sargasso sea, ibi dragones.

A Week in Walcott • “The Schooner Flight”

4 masted schooners
Image: 4-masted Schooners, posted at Flickr by Jingles the Pirate under a Creative Commons License.

When I was young, I needed to be wrestled from the ocean, red-eyed and salt-pruned and wailing. Then, I learned the sea was a grave. It didn’t stop me from going. It only increased the want, the understanding of salt.

In “The Schooner Flight“, which you can read here at Poetry Foundation, the poem’s speaker Shabine takes to the sea when corruption sours his successful smuggling ring between Trinidad and Venezuela. The work, which is steeped deep in bobol and bureaucracy, is also mashing up Shabine’s good living: he’s on the outs with his woman, Maria Concepcion, and the clearest route of escape he can see is maritime.  It isn’t that he doesn’t love his wife, his children, his home, but love itself is a series of navigations at once as simple, and complex, as knotwork. So Shabine unmoors himself, and what follows makes the poem.

There are reasons why, in the wake of Walcott’s passing, one of the most frequent, voice-cracking laments has been for Shabine to go well, for Shabine to ascend, for Shabine to either soar or sleep. If poets aim the biographical missile-cores of their poems at themselves, this is the one that is pinned most enthusiastically to Walcott’s lapel. This is the poem that summons a lifetime of comparison between the creator and the work, sees the two running side by side across countries, in and out of other poems, Shabine’s arm linked with Walcott’s, sea shanties and invectives issuing forth.

But if Shabine could be Walcott, he could be any one of us. We’ve all made the betrayal that sees us packing our bags and hopping a route taxi at dawn. We’ve all sunk to our knees and begged the belly of a leviathan to forget our scent, summoning whichever gods tumble first towards our lips. We’ve all sought the counsel of spiked-cunt whores; the consolations of white rum; the certain split of soul unstitching from body, mid-hallucination. If Shabine the adulterer is Walcott, if Shabine the seaman is Walcott, if Shabine the scoundrel is Walcott, then what pieces of Shabine are we?

The answers are in the poem, whether you’ve read it countless times to yourself at night on board a pleasure craft, or whether you’re facing the poem with land-legs. I can tell you what pieces of Shabine live in me:

  • the realization that the sea is not unpeopled; no Caribbean sea can be unpeopled; no sea that bore witness to the weight of human cargo can ever rinse itself clean;
  • the cure for an innocent belief that the sea lives in the blood of all Caribbean people, when in truth you can live generations with an aversion for the thing that bore your bloodlines to sufferation; that maybe there is more than mere indolence to the truth that so many Caribbean people elect not to swim;
  • there is no outrunning what haunts you, by sea or land;
  • the fact that if you live your life by one theme: in Shabine’s case,
    “The bowsprit, the arrow, the longing, the lunging heart—
    the flight to a target whose aim we’ll never know,”
    then your life can mean more and be worth more than the mess you’ve made of it;
  • that a woman’s love or a man’s will not silence the need you have for destinations outside of human affection, since you are bound to hurt the people you belove best by being the beast hewn in you by an uncivilian nature;
  • the truth that the sea is history, but so are you, since you bear the stories of the generations and ancestries of your bloodline in your own blood and spit and come (and whether you care about being a conduit is what matters least of all);
  • the fact that you should never ask another man to commit a killing that you yourself cannot make in your own name;
  • the absoluteness that at least once in your lifetime, others will consider you genuinely mad, and you will waste your own time and God’s time trying to figure out if they right.

Better to live on your own terms, facing seaward, your fish-knife at the ready to challenge anyone who comes for your liquor, your lover, or your poems.

A Week in Walcott • “The Saddhu of Couva”

Image: Sadhu, posted at Flickr by Eric Montfort under a Creative Commons License.

If you’ve been to a Hindu funeral, you won’t forget the burning.

The ceremony is its own dread ritual, but when it comes to the commitment of that body to the fire, you will remember it. You will see the smoke rising from the body you once knew when its muscles were working and its heart was pumping, when it issued curses and sighs and farts and hunger growls. You will take the ashes of that body into your body; you will feel the heat even if you are feet away from the pyre. You will go home with the trace elements of that body that once fed and dressed and sheltered you, under your tongue and fingernails, in the roots of your hair, in the backs of your eyes.

I attended a Hindu burning when I was nine, long before I read “The Saddhu of Couva”, which you can read here at PoemHunter. Every time I turn to this poem, I cannot do so without the scent, the heat, the nearness of that first burning.

What is ready for the pyre in “The Saddhu of Couva” has long been cremated. The speaker, who looks out onto the canefields, sees rows of tradition razed before him. He longs to depart a life long made untenable for him by the advent of electric light. His faith in his gods is undiminished, but he fears the conduit has been cut – that labourers and hunters are slicing and caging the deities who were once bundled in white muslin, indentured from India’s belly. The world has wrought a great weariness in our saddhu; he senses his reincarnation might be upon him, imagines at every moment how effortless it might be to take flight.

Gaiutra Bahadur, author of the groundbreaking, kala pani traversing Coolie Woman (University of Chicago Press, 2013) reports the significance of this day in history on her blog: “… one hundred years ago, the system of semi-forced labor that scattered 1.2 million Indians to plantation colonies across the globe was suspended.” It is a good day to think of the list of indentures my ancestors wore in their lives, about the stories we have from workers, the stories that will never be accessible. The saddhu of Walcott’s poem would have known dark water. For him, Couva wasn’t a travesty once the fields could still ring out in the praise songs of Bengal, once “behind Ramlochan Repairs there was Uttar Pradesh”.

Without that – with the holy hosts consigned to monkey cage and subject to snake cutlass – well, what’s a poor saddhu to do? Better to perch on the lip of a dying cane field in dry season, spread your wings and ascend, sloughing off the tedium of any human body’s station, be he labourer, lover or wise man.

I confess my own doubts over Walcott’s saddhu. I have known Hindu holy men in Trinidad, and very little would prompt me to sit at their feet. I’ve learned never to trust a self-appointed elder, but I don’t need to trust him to taste the burnt ash of his misery, or to feel the itch in his fingers that long to sprout into a wingspan. I need put no faith in him as a narrative instrument to touch the shape of his disenchantment with the island spinning itself into a new monster under his bare feet.

I think of the transformation within “The Saddhu of Couva” as less of a sea change, and more of a cane comeuppance. The speaker knows all too well that cane is a cruel revelation, that his own “old age is a conflagration / as fierce as the cane fires of crop time.” His life has been steeped in either too many words, as those he uttered on the Couva Village Council, as those offered from the pulpits of an ineffective government — or else too quiet, his voice drowned in loudspeaker din.

A product of his time who has also succumbed to the ruination of it, I still reach for Walcott’s saddhu because he understands the importance of folding neatly the self you never quite were, packing it in with the cost of so many other indentures, and raising high your moulting wings.

A Week in Walcott • “Paramin”

Image: Inga fastuosa Hairy Pois Doux Paramin, posted at Flickr by Feroze Omardeen under a Creative Commons License.

I’ve never been to Paramin. I attach a mystical, perhaps transformative quality to it in my mind, and I know this is dangerous: of such things is rank romanticism born. A cocoa pod balanced just so on a sturdy branch; a plume of mist curling about the mountain’s skulls; a blue devil waiting for you in the bush with tongue outstretched and glistening – these images and others present themselves, but I never forget that 1) it is possible for an islander to exotify her own island, and 2) Paramin isn’t a parable, even if it often features as one. It’s a home.

So it is in Walcott’s “Paramin”, which you can read here at Specimen. It’s one of the poems from Morning, Paramin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), which is a marriage of verse and visual art. In it, Walcott’s poems meet Scottish painter Peter Doig’s landscapes; light-dappled vistas; dark-dotted walls of Lapeyrouse cemetery; bright and cannily rendered Studio Film Club posters. If you have a copy of the book, you’ll know the painting that faces “Paramin” – Untitled (Jungle Painting) – shows a spectral, grey-washed human figure, either retreating into or advancing from tall foliage. Taken literally, the intent of Doig’s painting seems clear. Taken outside of that, the work conjures a fullness of space, as well as its absence; there’s a pool of darkness that swells, off to the side of the figure’s feet, either inviting or menacing as your eyes decide to frame it.

Nothing menaces in “Paramin”, except for the possibility that your own life offers up no such hammocks of rest, when you contemplate your end. This poem is steeped like bush tea in an awareness of its speaker’s mortality. If there are contrivances in the poem, I can’t see them – the address is first person, straddling the median time between a beloved past and an aching present. Not only that, but beyond these easy divisions of temporal shifts, the future waits for the poem’s speaker. I imagine I can see it through the speaker’s eye, curtains billowing like white sails bordering kitchen windows, every passageway thrown open in a high house on a hill.

The past was Paramin. The present is Paramin. The future will be Paramin.

The poem divulges to its reader that “the name said by itself could make us laugh / as if some deep, deep secret was hidden there.” This describes several of the poems in Morning, Paramin, which loop the sustained tape-record of laughter over the assembled armoires of a life (and all the lives that branch from it) steeped in the unknown. For every public Derek Walcott the world has seen, there is, there must be, a private self – a self whose pulse cannot be taken even in the thousands of pages he has offered up as heart-language.

Who can best speak the heart-language of “Paramin”? Is it the “she” whom the speaker of the poem longs to join, the she who “is gone but the hill is still there”? Is it the children, the daughters who inhabit the lush valley which opens up after the steep ascent of the cocoa-scented road, rising? Perhaps it is Paramin itself, “the mountain air and music with no hint of what the name could mean, rocking gently…”

This poem shows us that a world can live in one word, offered on a tongue that has tasted it, tested it, told truths and tales by it. The poem suggests that one word can keep us safe, or keep us ready for the future after death, the place where it is possible to relight the lamp of a word that kept you warm, while you still had a body made flesh. In this way, and in others, “Paramin” does home-work: it points to a place on a map of Trinidad, and takes it into the speaker’s breast, into the speaker’s lungs and spleen and vital organs.

It says. Look. I lived here. I loved here. This is where I once stayed, fathered, made mas and made mistakes, made music and made amends. Look close. Stop on your travels and inhale the cocoa, from which both sweet and bitter things are made. This was/is/will be home.

A Week in Walcott • “Love After Love”

Derek Walcott by Bruce Paddington
Derek Walcott. Photograph by Bruce Paddington, via Caribbean Beat.

I’ve been writing poems seriously for less than five years, and innocently for nearly thirty. I try not to place expectations on my poems. If this is always true, does that follow that I don’t place limits on them, either? I’m thinking about the hopes and the borders of poems, in the wake of Derek Walcott’s death on March 17th.

This is my wake for Derek.

Hopes, then, and borders.

“Love After Love”, which you can read here at Brain Pickings, is arguably the poem of Walcott’s that’s been most voraciously devoured for public, pop culture consumption. I’m sure scholars lap it up, but it’s not scholars I think of, when I think of “Love After Love”, published in Collected Poems, 1948-1984 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986): it’s bright-eyed undergraduates applying filters to the poem on Instagram, hashtagging it with #selflove #loveyourself #poemsthatmakegrownmencry.

The last one isn’t accidental; it comes from a book of the same title, Poems that Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them (Simon & Schuster, 2015). Within it, “Love After Love” is the selection of British actor Tom Hiddleston, who describes it as a clarion, one that

“feels like permission, as though Walcott is calling time on all the madness, the mayhem, the insecurity, the neuroses, the drama, and with a big, broad, kind smile, he brings us to an awareness of the present moment, calm and peaceful, and to a feeling of gratitude for everything that we have.”

In one palm, I abhor the abstruseness of so much verse. In another, I know that so much of the work I do in a poem is someone’s idea of a perfect hell: a room windowed by recondite funhouse mirrors, none of which present a clear, still image. “Love After Love”, I think, is no one’s carnival nightmare. It feels like walking into a room of mirrors and finding that they all show you your imperfect, incandescent face.

I am wary of happy poems, and this may be because I do not know how to write one, except by accident. I’m not wary of “Love After Love”, even though it sows joy in actors, in bloggers, in students who swear at more knotted, gnarled expositions in verse, scrambling to Cliff Notes for scansions and summaries. This is because the borders of the poem are visible to me. It contains and confines loss: the real heart-shatter of making yourself small for someone else’s sweetness; the quiet allusion to a life executed in dance steps drawn out by an indifferent, clumsy hand; the chests and cases of private humiliations stored as fuel against anything approaching pride.

This is the backdrop of the poem, the history behind the curtain, the points of no return from which, miraculously, the speaker makes a comeback. The speaker is you. The borders that were visible haven’t melted; the years of shame and censure have left their barbwire under your nails. In spite of this, or because of this, the speaker-who-is-you says, there is still bread and wine. There is still room to land in the arms of someone who has been waiting for you, all your life.

Isn’t this the hope we’re feeding with free pornography, with tiny kleptomanias and water-cooler gossip, with too much Netflix and thick gold beras made for our babies, at the hour of their birth? The hope that each of us, no matter how miserable, how masturbatory, how arrears-laden and perpetually hungover, is worth a glorious comeback? After all, the poem’s speaker says, “the time will come”, and not with a whimper, either.

One of the hopes in this poem is elation, in the face of a life littered with doubts – and this is the payoff of “Love After Love”; it doesn’t build perfection from a state of unbloodied grace; it builds you from the battleground up, ushers you in from the sand-and-shit arena. It asks, like Lucille Clifton, “won’t you celebrate with me”? It trusts, like Seamus Heaney, “the feel of what nubbed treasure your hands have known”. It senses, like Olive Senior, that “you have entered that place where flight is a given.

Here, the hope is endless, and the borders unterrorized.