Derek Walcott: Poems

Walcott, a West Indies poet, has called himself “a schizophrenic” and “a mongrel” in terms of his divided heritage, “a mongrel of style.” He called the Irish “the niggers of Britain,” and felt he shared a literary heritage especially with Yeats, Joyce, Synge, and others. He is particularly noted for his deft cross-cultural use of metaphor.


     A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
     Of Africa. Kikuyu, quick as flies,
     Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.
     Corpses are scattered through a paradise.
5     Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries:
     "Waste no compassion on these separate dead!"
     Statistics justify and scholars seize
     The salients of colonial policy.
     What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
10     To savages, expendable as Jews?

     Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
     In a white dust of ibises whose cries
     Have wheeled since civilization's dawn
     From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.
15     The violence of beast on beast is read
     As natural law, but upright man
     Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
     Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
     Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
20     While he calls courage still that native dread
     Of the white peace contracted by the dead.

     Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
     Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
     A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
25     The gorilla wrestles with the superman.
     I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
     Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
     I who have cursed
     The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
30     Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
     Betray them both, or give back what they give?
     How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
     How can I turn from Africa and live?

The Kikuyu, mentioned in the second line, battled the Brits in Kenya for 8 of the years of the 1950s. Walcott attempts to politicize their death by comparing the “savages, expendable as Jews.” “I who am poisoned with the blood of both, Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?” reminds me of Countee Cullen’s “What is Africa to Me?” Finally, the choice between “Africa and the English tongue I love” recalls much of the tension of the earlier Harlem Renaissance poets, while the final lines draw attention to the higher-than-ever political stakes, echoing Yeats’ historical poems by concluding with a question: “How can I face such slaughter and be cool? How can I turn from Africa and live?”


A long poem, the Norton excerpt is the first section. “I stood like a stone and nothing else move/ but the cold sea rippling like galvanize/ and the nail holes of stars in the sky roof,/ till a wind start to interfere with the trees.” “I, Shabine, saw when these slums of empire was paradise./ I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,/ I had a sound colonial education,/ I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,/ and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.” “I knew… there’d be no rest, there’d be no forgetting.” “As I worked, watching the rotting waves come/ past the bow that scissor the sea like silk,/ I swear to you all, by my mother’s milk,/ by the stars that shall fly from tonight’s furnace,/ that I loved them, my children, my wife, my home;/ I loved them as poets love the poetry/ that kills them, as drowned sailors the sea.” This passage is especially reminiscent of “The Wasteland” and “The Waves.” “When I write/ this poem, each phrase go be soaked in salt;/ I go draw and knot every line as tight/ as ropes in this rigging; in simple speech/ my common language go be the wind/ my pages the sails of the schooner Flight.”


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