White Egrets by Derek Walcott, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp. 86
Terracotta Army at Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, China. Photo by Aiden MacRae Thompson.
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The poem at the start of Derek Walcott’s White Egrets tells us much of what we need to know about the rest of the collection.
The scene could be anywhere in the world, possibly on the coast of a Caribbean island. A game of chess appears to be ongoing. Who is playing? How long have they been playing? This is not clear. But the chessmen, in the view of the poet, resemble another place and another time as equally unfixable and mutable: the “astonishing excavation” discovered at Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, China, in 1974.
The now famous Terracotta Army, reportedly dating back to 210BC, perform a kind of imaginative time-travelling that is a metaphor for the art of the poet as well as representative of the fact that, in the end, we must all leave things behind:
The chessmen are as rigid on their chessboard
as those life-sized terra-cotta warriors whose vows
to their emperor with bridle, shield and sword
were sworn by a chorus that has lost its voice;
no echo in that astonishing excavation.
Like in Shelly’s ‘Ozymandias’, death—and how it reduces all grandeur, all folly, pride and hubris to something of a cruel joke—is Walcott’s theme, so vividly rendered by a technique of metaphor and a fluid transformation of images:
Each soldier gave an oath, each gave his word
to die for his emperor, his clan, his nation,
to become a chess piece, breathlessly erect
in shade or crossing sunlight, within hours—
from clay to clay and odourlessly strict.
The poem is concerned with the creative process and, perhaps, the ambitions of the poet (who literally gives his “word” like the chessmen). Each poet—no matter how ambitious—shall leave behind a body of work that must find its own fate:
If vows were visible they might see ours
as changeless chessmen in the changing light
on the lawn outside where bannered breakers toss
and the palms gust with music that is time’s.
In addition to the vocation of the poet, the “vows” here may also equally refer to love, making the chess game a relationship and the terra-cotta men reflections of an unending devotion.
But within the narrative of the poem, Walcott registers an interruption in the scene of the chess-players: “A sable blackbird twitters in the limes”. This interruption, abrupt and piercing, is death itself. Birds—like the titular white egrets—will later be seen to function as possible symbols of death in the entire book. Further, the sense of the poet being brought out of some meditative reverie by sound and movement is clear: “motion brings loss”. This process of the end of day-dreaming is, in fact, a mirror for the end of life. Thus, by the poem’s end, Walcott has established the themes of his great book: death, love, the nature of art, and politics.
The skill and craft embodied by the first poem is a good illustration of why the Nobel Laureate’s book was awarded the 2010 TS Eliot Prize and is up for the region’s first major literature award which is to be announced this month (April 30) during the Bocas Literature Festival, the first festival of its kind in this country.
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An aspect of White Egrets that has not been adequately commented on, in my view, is its structure and how it adds strength to the work.
In a sense, the book is really one long poem, divided into 54 numbered parts. Each part may stand alone. Some of these numbered parts are then divided into roman numeral sub-parts and given a title. In one instance, a sub-part is given a title. Between the parts, motifs overlap uniting the whole: the terra-cotta men reappear in different guises, the white egrets dot, punctuate, guard and haunt the text (“white egrets” also appear elsewhere in Walcott’s work such as in The Prodigal and in The Star Apple Kingdom where they are called white cattle birds); acacia trees sprout repeatedly.
The implication of this structure is clear: it mirrors the book’s great theme of the individual’s (poet’s; artist’s) life. Though lives may not follow grand, epic narratives, this structure suggests that real life is something of a “greatest hits” CD or a collection of essays which, when edited and brought together, may illuminate a system or vantage point on the part of the author. The 54 sections, thus, are like episodes which, when placed together, form one coherent life; not in a logical sense, but in a thematic and pragmatic sense.
Perhaps some of the most vivid poems in the work, ironically, deal with political themes which we don’t expect in the sequence but which make absolute sense in the context of the forces shaping a life.
‘A Sea Change’ deals with the circularity of the political process and how change can be an exchange with something immutable.
‘The Lost Empire’ is a spectacular examination of the aftermath of colonialism and, perhaps most plausibly, a personal meditation of the challenge to global notions of development which this part of the world often faces: “And then there was no more Empire all of a sudden. / It’s victories were air, its dominion dirt:…I’m content as Kavanagh with his few acres; for my heart to be torn to shreds like the sea’s lace.”
This is followed up by ‘The Spectre of Empire’ which laments the individual’s relegation to stereotypes, among other things: “the costumes that he wore, and the roles that wore him.”
There are at least two poems that deal with the rise of Barack Obama (including ‘Forty Acres’). There is also another poem which has been interpreted as a response to fellow Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul’s politics. The first line of which begins: “Here’s what that bastard calls ‘the emptiness’—”. The poem is a counter-argument to the idea of negation within the developing world. Its very words are meant to counter the idea of a barren place haunted by Conrad: “…This verse/ is part of the emptiness”, Walcott observes of his own verse, cheekily.
There is also commentary on the media, the reader’s role in the artistic process, and the process of aging. Love, loss, regrets and memories are all touched on delicately, but not as end-points but rather starting-points.
This is not the fiery work of Walcott of the 1960s, 70s. This is not even the iridescent Walcott of The Prodigal. But it is something almost entirely different: a calm mature voice, with a propensity to quietly rage against the dying of the light.
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