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By Derek Walcott
New York: Farrar, Straus & Company, 1964
From the 1962 original
85 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
June 2014

Derek Walcott was born in St. Lucia in the Caribbean. He was born of a mix-raced marriage and mentions this mixture in one of his poems as having been formative for his view of life. He was especially influenced by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and there was also a significant influence from his Methodist Christianity.

The first two poems of this collection are autobiographical. He talks of the roots of his own family with one parent a black man from African roots and a European white woman, thus his life is touched by the histories of both races and the interface of Africa with the European culture. The second poem talks of the legacy of slavery upon his nation and his own family. Both poems were powerful, challenging and enlightening of his person.

“Tales of the Island” is a set of 10 short picture poems. The images are powerful, strong, and essentially Caribbean. They reminded me of places I’ve lived in both Haiti and the Bahama Islands. His magnificent description of the “loupgarou,” (an evil Voodoo spirit) was especially the essence of Caribbeanness.

His poem “Islands” seems to capture an essence for Walcott’s attitude toward “his” islands. They are not just a place, but his personal space, the root and source of his meaning system, the inspiration of much of the poetry of this volume. In this poem he writes:

“Merely to name them is the prose
Of diarists to make you a name
For readers who like travellers praise
Their beds and beaches as the same; …”

But it is all so much more personal for him:

“I mark the peace with which you graced
Particular islands, descending
A narrow stair to light the lamps
Against the night surf’s noises, shielding
A leaping mantle with one hand,
Or simply scaling fish for supper,
Onions, jack-fish, bread, red snapper; . . .”

He catches the spirit of the woman of whom he writes and the specialness that the environment of his island adds.

In the poem ORIGINS Walcott contrasts the values and “reality” of the “discoverers” and the natives. The Spanish described the natives as primitive, with absurd gods and quaint and inefficient systems of money and technology. Over the centuries since the “discovery” the native and European ways have come to some amicable adjustments here and there, and Walcott looks back to those pre-European days with a bit of romanticism, hope and appreciation.

“Castaway” is an astonishingly unusual and gripping poem. An old man is a sole castaway on a small and unfriendly island. His only hope is for rescue, but this hope seems bleak.

“The starved eye devours the seascape for the morsel
Of a sail.”

He has given up yet can’t quite announce that even to himself, but he comes close:

“Godlike, annihilating godhead, art,
And self, I abandon
Dead metaphors like the almond’s leaf-shaped heart . . .”

This was a very moving poem, sad yet powerful.

This short book was a difficult read for me. I read it through twice, lingered over poems if they could at all “grab” me. Yet few did. I was and remain disappointed with myself. Critics seem to rave of his poetry, but I struggled mightily and failed more than not. Certainly there were moments, and I mention some above, but in the end I came away from this work feeling that I just wasn’t much moved by Derek Walcott’s poems in this volume, and not willing to say that was the fault of Derek Walcott by any means.

I may have to try again, perhaps a different volume of his work, to give him the benefit of the doubt and perhaps to give myself a better chance to come to know and enjoy this heralded poet.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett