IT IS THE LAST poem of White Egrets, published in 2010, and is the last poem in The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948 - 2013 a collected volume published in 2014. It bears no title, but when it first appeared in The New York Review of Books in 2007, it was published under the heading, 'This Page Is A Cloud'. You can read it in full at the Scottish Poetry Library website here. At the moment, it is my favorite Walcott poem.
This page is a cloud between whose fraying edges
a headland with mountains appears brokenly
then is hidden again until what emerges
from the now cloudless blue is the grooved sea
and the whole self-naming island, its ochre verges,
its shadow-plunged valleys and a coiled road....
Here is a poem that literally jumps off the page. It engages the mind and the body, inviting reflection on the book as an object in our hands; on the poetry of ordinary life; and on death. A chapter is closed.
The idea of a page being a cloud takes us through several leaps. First, we are invited to remove ourselves from the abstract imagery of language and to contemplate something solid: the book in our hands. The scope of the poem widened, we then fly to the clouds. We are given a bird's eye view of the terrain, inhabiting the perspective of the titular white egrets. It all unfurls: the colors of the land, the shapes of valleys, the curves of roads, the serenity of fishing villages. But this is not just a picaresque, descriptive list. Each item is a symbol. What is at first beautiful is also rendered dangerous. There are shadows stalking the land, the road coils like a snake. "A line of gulls has arrowed" suggests an offensive, the idea of birds turning on man, as well as the arrows of the Amerindians. Time itself is pierced. Each turn ("a widening harbour", "a town with no noise", "streets growing closer") is a stop along the way in a journey that is both linear and also metaphorical. When "ancestral canoes" appear it is as though an Egyptian burial ship has been excavated. We have crossed over.
By the time we arrive at the closing lines ("a cloud slowly covers the page and it goes / white again and the book comes to a close") we have been on a disorienting odyssey, traveling film-reel style through a country, through feelings ("white, silent surges"), through life and through time.
That the poem makes us think of the poetry book in our hands is not tangential to the theme of death. For Walcott is asking us to reflect on the place of objects in our lives and the relevance of objects in the afterlife. Like 'Love After Love', this is a great poem which the poet had to build up to, starting, perhaps with an earlier poem like 1987's 'To Norline' in which a relationship has ended: "when some line on a page / is loved...it's hard to turn."
By ending his books with this untitled poem, Walcott has implicated us in the matter to which he has invited our attention again and again throughout his career. Like a philosopher concerned with the relationship between language and reality, he uses the fraught process of reading to ask us to consider what is more real: language or what it describes? Life or death?