Book Buzz (March/April 2005)

The Prodigal shows Derek Walcott at the height of his poetic powers; Lorna Goodison's stories in Fool-Fool Rose is Leaving Labour-in-Vain Savannah know the truth about love and life; Duty struggles with freedom in Lakshmi Persaud's new novel, Raise the Lanterns High

––Illustration for Raise the Lanterns High

No place like home

The Prodigal  Derek Walcott (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, ISBN 0-374-23743-3, 105 pp)

“What language do you speak in your own country?” This is the kind of question often asked of West Indians abroad, and it haunts Derek Walcott halfway through his new book-length poem, The Prodigal. It is, of course, a question every poet must answer, regardless of history or geography; but, in Walcott’s case, the facts of history and geography make the imperative to answer particularly urgent. He came of age “in a green world, one without metaphors”, as he once put it — in a West Indies yet to be named by its native poets, still to enter the permanence of literature. In one of his earliest poems he swore “to praise lovelong, the living and the brown dead” of his home island, St Lucia, and for decades he has faithfully pursued his vocation to name and praise the islands of the Antilles and their people.

But Walcott has long struggled with a sense of dividedness that comes of being the hybrid son of a hybrid culture, neither African nor European yet also both. It comes of mastering the forms of English literature so as to write about a place and a people far outside that literature’s traditions. And it comes also of the tension between being in the islands he loves and being in the wider world, “exiled” by the practical necessities of being a professional poet.

These two themes — making the world “real” through the power of poetry, and the anxiety of dividedness — drive the narrative of The Prodigal. Walcott tells the story of his fortunate travels through Europe above all, but also the United States, Mexico, South America, a journey foreshadowed by his reading: “We read, we travel, we become.” And he tells the story of his homecoming, once again, to St Lucia. He wonders whether his exile from the Caribbean is a betrayal, and wonders whether his poetry compounds that treachery or redeems it.

The Prodigal’s first two sections are a catalogue of days and nights among the landmarks of Geneva, Florence, Rome, and Milan. Descriptions of streets and hotels give way to memories, snatches of conversation with strangers, musings about the relations between the history of a place and its art. There are times when the traveller’s enthusiasm seems to flag, his attention to wander, and so may the reader’s. “How many more cathedral spires?” Walcott asks.  A line from “Islands”, forty years ago, drifts into the mind: “Merely to name them is the prose / Of diarists”. But, too alert and scrupulous a poet ever to write mere prose, Walcott animates his long travelogue with the memory of and longing for his “unimportantly beautiful” island over the sea, to which he returns in the final section.

Here The Prodigal truly soars, revealing again an intensity of faith in words and images equalled by few living poets. With as little obvious effort as breathing, he launches extraordinary flights of metaphor, sustaining them aloft longer than syntax should allow. Apparently at his command, the world translates itself into words then back again.

The dialect of the scrub in the dry season<image>

withers the flow of English. Things burn for days . . .

Every noun is a stump with its roots showing,

and the creole language rushes like weeds

until the entire island is overrun,

then the rain begins to come in paragraphs

and hazes this page, hazes the grey of islets . . .

 

Attentive readers of Walcott will notice that The Prodigal — which he describes as his last book, “an old man’s book” — is often in dialogue with his earlier work, especially with his great mid-career long poem, Another Life. Here, attempting to describe and understand the birth of his vocation in 1940s St Lucia, he semi-mythologises himself as “a prodigy of the wrong age and colour”, torn between his love for his native landscape and the knowledge that only by leaving can he truly fulfil his promise. “Prodigy” and “prodigal” are etymologically unrelated, but so masterful a punster as Walcott must have been drawn to the phonetic link, and the suggestion that the prodigal’s self-imposed exile is rooted in the prodigy’s inescapable talent.

Ultimately, Another Life traces an arc of departure; The Prodigal completes the shape with its arc of return. In the earlier work, Walcott notes with the nearly desperate ambition of the young “how the vise / of horizon tightens / the throat”. The Prodigal in turn ends with another horizon, but this time a “line of light that shines from the other shore.” That other shore is the freedom of the imagination that every artist struggles to achieve. That line is the light of poetry itself. It is also the light of love. For Walcott, they are the same.

Nicholas Laughlin

Love etc

Fool-Fool Rose Is Leaving Labour-in-Vain Savannah
Lorna Goodison (Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 976-637-195-4, 181 pp)

Some headlines from Ms Goodison’s second collection of short stories:

Rural couple to wed — Groom-to-be claims exhaustion and fear of stroke.
TB fells wife of Angel of Larceny’s — Nicotine, Nicodemus habits to blame.
Gone to the dogs — Slow girl benefits from canine classes. Less hope for abused wife.
Vegan or vagrant? — Homeless boy eats roses, hopes for a better life.
Why lost loves should not be found — All you don’t want to know about the one that got away.

Take away the cell phones, the Bimmers, the problem of deportees, and the dancehall dons, and we have storytelling not unlike the West Indian yard literature of the 1940s and 50s. Baby-mothers and smart men; God and poverty. How unvarying life turns out to be.

True to the ear (at a dancehall shootout: “The don growled, ‘Strain him’”) and eye (“the moon was big and white as a basin of milk”), Goodison’s stories, coming 15 years after her first collection, travel from Kingston slums and suburbs to the Jamaican countryside  — observant, empathetic, and non-judgemental.

There’s a lot of love in these stories. Or the absence of love. Or the idea of love. One way or the other, something to do with love hovers, like light or angels or memories, over these stories. Love and hope — a couple more things that turn out to be unvarying in life.

Anu Lakhan

 

“It is good to be reading our own”

 

Why do we read, why do we write, West Indian Literature? Hopefully, because it gives us pleasure. But also, no doubt, because it helps us examine and reaffirm — perhaps reconstitute — ourselves. In an early Walcott poem, called “Roots”, there is the line: “When they conquer you, you have to read their books”. It is good to be reading some of our own . . . They have helped to move us forward from a time, recalled by Philip Sherlock, when “there was no West Indian poet with whom [he] might walk as [he] did with the poets of England.” They have helped us move beyond that time when — as V.S. Naipaul put it — “To us . . . all literatures were foreign” and “we knew we could not hope to read in books of the life we saw about us”. Indeed, when there were real connections to be made between our non-literary experience and the foreign books we read, we sometimes failed to make them.

 

Making West Indian Literature (Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 976-637-174-1, 131 pp) collects 16 essays and interviews by Mervyn Morris, poet and professor emeritus of West Indian literature at the University of the West Indies, Mona, exploring the range of creativity of writers like Dennis Scott, Trevor Rhone, Louise Bennett, and Mikey Smith.

 

 

Vasti’s choice

Raise the Lanterns High Lakshmi Persaud (BlackAmber Books, ISBN 1-901969-20-7, 354 pp)

After a distinguished career in teaching and journalism, Trinidadian Lakshmi Persaud started writing fiction in the late 1980s. This is her fourth novel, following Butterfly in the Wind, Sastra, and For the Love of My Name, all published in the 1990s.

Persaud’s family came to Trinidad from Uttar Pradesh in the 1890s, and Raise the Lanterns High is set partly in the 1960s, in the village where Persaud was born — Pasea village in Tunapuna, outside Port of Spain. Its other setting is northern India, a Hindu kingdom of about 200 years ago. The main theme is the tension between custom, duty, and responsibility on one side, and independence, freedom of choice, and self-realisation on the other. In Trinidad, this is the dilemma confronting 27-year-old Vasti, who is faced with an arranged marriage to a man whom she knows to be a rapist. In India, it challenges the three widowed queens of a dead king, who by custom are expected to burn themselves on the royal funeral pyre and thus join their husband in heaven. These parallel stories are skilfully woven together in this gentle, thoughtful, and sensitive novel. And the resolution of the two dilemmas — past and present, Indian and Caribbean — may not be quite what you expect.

Jeremy Taylor