Faber & Faber 2010
Derek Walcott’s White Egrets sensibly has no cover illustration – just a bold statement of its presence. The collection contains a great many poems seemingly inspired by a long trip to Italy – which is just up my street since I’ve lived here for more than thirty years.
Walcott obviously has a long-standing relationship with Il Bel Paese: he is on the editorial board of Poesia magazine published by Crocetti Editore (if I’m not mistaken, the only one in Italy receiving the equivalent of UK Arts Council funds – other non-Italian board members include Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Tomas Tranströmer and Charles Wright. Quite an impressive line-up behind a rather pedestrian monthly).
“Sicilian Suite” (eleven poems), “In Italy” (twelve poems), “On Capri” (one poem) and poem n° 48 form a hefty chunk of the collection – and are not the only travelogues.
Walcott uses place and nature as a sounding board or something to bounce his thoughts off, so that his homeland Santa Lucia is inevitably mentioned in “Sicilian Suite” with the excuse that Lucia is also the patron saint of the Mediterranean island. Despite the title of the sequence, we get a mention of poet Pavese, who was from Piedmont, and Recanati, the small town in the Marches Region where Leopardi was born. There is also a mention of Salvatore Quasimodo, the Sicilian-born Nobel poet, and a certain Vittorio who I can’t quite work out. Walcott also very deftly uses place names to generate local colour: Ortigia (the historic island of Syracuse), Passeggio Adorno (a seaside promenade in the same city named after a Mayor and dated 1868) and Arethusa (a nymph fountain on the island of Ortigia), not to mention frequent mentions of Sicily and Sicilian. We also get “a Greek tanker” thrown in as the only hint of Magna Graecia. He communicates an instant sense of being at ease wherever he is and – something I like very much – warmly takes the reader’s arm like an old friend, never the eave’s dropper always the welcome guest. There is always a human warmth in Walcott even when he is admitting he didn’t treat his wives very well.
He has a knack of combining grammatical terms in hybrids with the natural world: “consonants of gravel” catches the noise of footsteps over loose chippings, “syllables of the trimmed orange oleander” suggests the elongated, pictogram shape of its leaves and “thick with prayers like the starlings repeating their verses” delightfully captures the congregation of birds at dusk. He also uses synaesthesia-like forms: “my memory’s nostrils” perhaps has a clumsy sound but is very effective and quickly followed by “the smell of words”. He manages to humanise nature without overdoing the pathetic fallacy: “as a bosoming wave unbuttons her white bodice”, “the clouds shone altar-white” and “an anachronistic blackbird in a frock coat” are good examples.
I also get strong hints of Byron, Yeats and Eliot. Byron emerges in some of the off-hand closures, such as “It wasn’t news”, but especially in the dashing rhymes. This quote rhymes with “Syracuse” - although he can be cheeky as well, using the Italian name Siracusa to get a rhyme with Arethusa and “I would lose her”. He can get away with rhyming “culture” with vulture” (as he does in another section where “profit” and “prophets” in the hands of a lesser poet would raise a groan). I get a suggestion of Prufrock in “the crab scrawls your letters then hides them” and Yeats’s musing on politics and young girls in “I’ll tell you what they think: you’re too old to be shaken by such a lissom young woman...”.
The other long section “In Italy” has the dedication “for Paola” (shades of Laura and Beatrice), with single poems “for Giuseppe Ciccherlero” and “for Roberta”. Another Prufockian pathetic fallacy here is “and a cloud like a tablecloth spread for lunch”, which then culminates in why Walcott seems so adept at taking things in: “because we are never where we are, but somewhere else, even in Italy”. This is another echo of Eliot to my mind. We get the terms of human speech mixed with the natural world again in “patroness of palm and pine tree whose/ alphabet was the swallows of Syracuse.” Yeats’s use of compound adjectives appears in “wheat-harvested slopes”. I don’t agree with “leaping cypresses” – this tree, while lithe, is far too stately to leap – but then “streets as close as chain-mail” wins me immediately back.
Walcott evidently enjoyed his trip around Italy – as well as the already mentioned places, he also lets us know he knows Venice, Genoa, Milan and Florence – and obviously enjoyed meeting and being with young people. But this is not a guide book (even though other sections take in Spain and Barcelona, London, the British Empire, the West Indies): the tour around the world is an excuse for a tour around the mind and soul. This is substantial, challenging poetry, even when it is gruff and grim or doesn’t quite reach the mark. This is my fourth reading – I’m sure there’ll be many more and I’m sure I’ll be buying other of Walcott’s books soon. Head and shoulders above the other titles for the 2010 T S Eliot prize.