|At the book launch of Morning, Paramin last December at the Fernandes Industrial Estate, Laventille. Photo: Andre Bagoo|
A POEM contains time. Its effects rely entirely on a progression through words, lines, stanzas, developments, regressions, erasures—whatever materials are deemed fit.
A poem also contains time because it can look to the past. And it sometimes looks back in order to bring news to the present. Implicitly, the entire project of poetry looks to a future, in the same way all action assumes some kind of tomorrow.
Yet, sometimes it feels like time has paused in a poem: as though what is being presented is a fine photograph or painting. For a moment, WH Auden’s clock stops. A poem can be timeless, even if every fiber of its being is made of time.
In Morning, Paramin Derek Walcott confronts this vortex head-on. The book is an extended sequence of ekphrastic poems done in response to the paintings of Peter Doig. You might think the idea of a poet having to respond to a set image is limiting, but in fact such a stricture can give the poet more freedom. The result, in this case, is an ease and fluidity in Walcott’s lines. While the poems are sometimes mindful of process, they feel fresh and free even when deploying formal conventions. Famously, a book closes at the end of White Egrets. This new book triumphantly defies that.
In the new work, which was launched last week Wednesday at Doig’s studio space at Fernandes Industrial Estate, Laventille, the paintings are not illustrations. Nor are the poems slavish replications of every stroke of the painter. In fact, sometimes Walcott takes the poems to unexpected places given the images. For example, in ‘Metropolitain’, the poet finds a tone that seems counter to the darkness of Doig’s painting ‘Stag’.
“Drunk is drunk anywhere,” Walcott memorably states. The Nobel Laureate gives us one of the greatest tributes to booze in poetry, calling Stag, “the loveliest of beers”. (Carib appears in another poem, but only as a symbol of tabanca.) There is a prose poem (the outstanding ‘100 Years Ago (Carrera)’), and poems that seem somewhere between rondels and sonnets contemplating another line but not needing one. Two poems are four lines long. Brevity is required for vastness.
Gradually, the book reveals its true subject matter: love and loss. Walcott once again looks to the past: dealing with a figure named Margaret, a likely reference to the poet’s second wife. The pair divorced, she died in 2014. The most fevered poems deal with her, such as ‘In the Heart of Old San Juan’, ‘Santa Cruz III’, and ‘Paramin’ where the poet declares, “when I join her it will be Paramin / for both us and the children.”
Yet these tender moments are offset by other tones. In ‘Man Dressed as Bat’ Walcott finds exhilaration and comedy at one moment, but then states, “What a sad thing a man dress like a bat. / Crip, cripple it!” The violent intolerance to the bat is not adequately accounted for in the poem. In ‘Mal d’Estomac’ and ‘Abstraction’ Walcott, the author of Tiepolo’s Hound and himself a painter, enters the guise of critic, analyzing modern art and Doig’s style.
If Walcott looks to the past, he also looks to a present with Doig. In ‘Grand Riviere I’ Walcott remarks of the landscape, “This lowering green emptiness is what you love / as hard as Peter Doig”. The poem ‘In the Arena’ casually describes Doig as, “a good fella”, adding, “You can tell a / good painter by how much he loves a place.” In ‘Peter, I’m Glad You Asked Me Along’, Walcott states, “Everywhere is wrong / as all forms miss perfection, hence the mask / in which the whole society is based.” He adds, “this craziness is just where we belong.” The effect is similar to what occurs in Catullus’s love poems to Lesbia, where anyone who acts as a portal to the object of the poet’s love is also loved. In ‘Lapeyrouse Umbrella’ Walcott writes, “What she has forgotten you learn every day, Peter.… / She sleeps in that country where there is no time, / as my pen and your brushstroke blend in the one metre.”
Readers will come away with a newfound appreciation of both artists. Walcott’s astonishing poems underline the complex power of Doig’s paintings which have a limitless range in terms of subject matter and technique. One minute we are down the islands at Carrera, the next we are skiing on a mountainside. At times the colours are as bright and vivid as a sign by Bruce Cayonne, at others, muted, oozing dark chemistries.
Doig’s best work finds de Chirico-like surrealism in the everyday. Examples include a heart-sign in a basketball court, a man walking with a pink umbrella next to the Lapeyrouse Cemetery, odd-looking boom boxes casually arranged at the side of the road, and, more recently, the yellow and green structures at the Port-of-Spain Jail, where the painter has utilized Rastafarian iconography in an audacious series of oil paintings.
But it is the sense of Walcott’s gaze – at the paintings, at his life, at his friend – that comes over most powerfully in this book. In the most haunting poem of the sequence, ‘Window Pane’, the poet looks to the future and writes, “all that lies ahead is the blank page / of winter no matter how well I write.”
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN-13: 978-0374213428, 120pp)
Available at PaperBased Bookshop
- from Newsday, December 28, Section B, page 1