Allusive but demotic, Derek Walcott was Robert Lowell’s truest heir and often surpassed the American poet in using geographic points to populate a topography of the soul. Walcott set many of his poems in St. Lucia, but during the late seventies, his powers growing, the work mediated between the cultures of the colonizer and the occupied. Where Eliot’s The Waste Land assembled the flotsam of several centuries worth of literature and the jetsam of popular entertainment, Walcott’s middle period adopted the suppleness of the verse forms he’d assimilated into self-referential meditations. In the grand, capacious lyrics and odes collected in The Fortunate Traveler, he reached the apex of his art. “Now I have come to where the phantoms live,” he writes in the title poem, dedicated to Susan Sontag, which does him credit because unlike Sontag his line is light on its feet. Like Lowell, he was expert at figures so correct that I can’t think of any other way to evoke the object described: “a sunbeam dances through brown rum bottles/like a firefly through a thicket of cocoa” from “The Liberator,” for example.
No joke: I reach for my frayed copy of Collected Poem 1948-1984, a regular of college bookstores, every few weeks. “A Far Cry from Africa,” another college favorite (shades of Norton anthologies!) has kept its luster, as complete in its way as early triumphs like Yeats’ “Who Goes with Fergus?”, Thomas Hardy’s “Neutral Tones,” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.” From the perfect iambic tetrameter of its first line (“A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt)” the poem is the distilled Walcott, a poised, chiselled victory over incoherence and mixed feelings. As a reminder that he wasn’t always the grand conceptualist who wrote a novel in verse and collaborated with Paul Simon, turn to this fragile beauty indebted to George Herbert called “Love After Love”. Speaking of Yeats, the shattering “Early Pompeian” rewrites Yeats’ “A Prayer for My Daughter” as an elegy:
As for you, little star,
my lost daughter, you are
bent in the shape forever
of a curled seed sailing the earth,
in the shape of one question, a comma
that knows before us whether death
is another birth
Honored earth, receive thy guest.