by Derek Walcott (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, ISBN 0-374-23743-3, 105 pp)
In an interview with Edward Hirsch in 1985, Derek Walcott said that when he had finished Another Life, his verse autobiography, he “felt like writing short poems, more essential, to the point, things that were contracted. They didn’t have the scale of the large book . . . It goes in that kind of swing . . .” In 1990, the pendulum swung back resoundingly, with Omeros, to the long, large poem. Since then, apart from The Bounty, which seemed at times as if it too wanted to be one long poem, we have had Tiepolo’s Hound, Walcott’s homage to painting by way of a biography of Camille Pissarro, and now The Prodigal.
The “riotous living” in which this Prodigal Son thinks he may have “wasted his substance” is simply all his wandering, of one kind or another, his “untethered pilgrimage”. (But note the purpose and responsibility in “pilgrimage”.) The pain is all the sharper to one who is so passionately attached to “home”. So now he asks himself, “Prodigal, what were your wanderings about?” The poem is the question and its answer. Walcott’s poetry has constructed for him an Odyssean persona, hooked to wandering but always yearning for home. This is one level of meaning available in the sigh in the Odyssean title-poem of Sea Grapes: “The ancient war / between obsession and responsibility / will never finish . . .”
Not surprisingly, then, The Prodigal covers a lot of ground, and not just spatially. It moves back and forth in time and memory, making connections across the span of his life and his books. It is as if the poem, as it evolved, drew into itself all the possibilities for short poems that crossed its horizon. Virtually every section can stand on its own as a whole poem, but all contribute to a whole that is as real in its disjunctions as in its continuities. In a 1990 interview with J.P. White, Walcott, using the sea as a symbol for a way of movement and being that contrasts with those of what is conventionally called history, said: “With the sea, you can travel the horizon in any direction, you can go from left to right or from right to left. It doesn’t proceed from A to B to C to D and so on.” This description is appropriate to the movement of The Prodigal.
Still, there is an overarching shape. The book is in three parts, comprising 18 cantos or chapters, each divided variously into three, four, or five subsections or poems. In this kind of structure, it resembles Tiepolo’s Hound and Omeros, as also in the sustaining of one verse form throughout, in this case a loose, flexible blank verse, sometimes almost sliding into free verse. The line and inflection can carry a clean, well-paced narrative movement of physical action:
A shot rang out and the green Vespa skidded
off the curb into a ditch below a fence
of rusty cactus and the beautiful soldier lay
on the dry grass verge staring at the blue sky
with its puffs of cloud like echoes of an ambush
her forage cap off, and the quiet blackbird’s wings
and the pomme-arac red lips appeared to make
a further beauty and a different peace.
Or they can switch to a cumulative resonance of awe, and what the poet calls “chaotic sentences of seaweed / plucked by the sandpiper’s darting concentration.”
The narrative, even cinematic verve is sharpened by the discreet thread of a sexual-romantic interest that flickers through the poem, in the glimpses of beautiful women who embody the poet’s feeling for the landscape and lifestyle of the particular place. Ilse, Roberta, Esperanza, Constanzia, or the Irish actress in Pescara, playing Norah Joyce: their presence makes us smile at the pluck that’s in the old boy yet, even as it sharpens the pathos of his condition. “I look and no longer sigh for the impossible,” he says, “panting over a cupidinous coffee,” as “the peaches of summer [bounce] on the grids of the Milanese sidewalks / in halters cut close to the coccyx.”
In Parts I and II, the poet-persona is travelling abroad, “Elsewhere.” In Part III he returns home, “Here.” The poem extends the dialogue between “Here” and “Elsewhere” which has been a significant aspect of his poetry and his self-quest since the volume entitled The Fortunate Traveller. It is as if the wanderings recounted in Parts I and II are there to require and sharpen the poignancy of the homecoming of Part III. In canto 1, he is in the United States, but even in a particular location he is the wanderer. From the outset, in New York, he is “wandering the Village” (Greenwich Village), or, in a Korean restaurant in Boston, his imagination takes him to Asia, to “shaggy Mongolian horsemen / in steaming tents while their mares stamped the snow.” Then he travels to Europe. In successive chapters in the rest of Part I, he is flying over the Alps and in Switzerland, in Milan, Abruzzi, Pescara, Genoa, but especially Milan. Part II takes him to Latin America, to Colombia and Mexico.
His descriptive genius is evidence of how he imagines himself into strange landscapes, even while conveying a sense of their strangeness. And they were not exactly strange, since he had long imagined them through his reading. His aerial view of the awesome expanse of the snow-blanketed Alps, the absolute, primal, blazing, freezing whiteness, is charged not only with his fear of heights, but with his deep childhood memory of stories that had both energised and terrified him:
There were the absolute,
these peaks, the pitch of temperature and terror,
polar rigidities that magnetised a child
these rocks bearded with icicles, crevasses
from Andersen’s “Ice Maiden,” Whittier’s “Snow Bound,”
this empire, this infernity of ice.
On Sunday, October 17, 1965, in the manuscript which, then still largely in prose, was to be the first draft of Another Life, Walcott had made an entry evoking the memory of his charged emotional response to the fairy tale of the Ice Maiden: “Snow and death. The princess was frozen alive in her cold glass coffin. He imagined whiteness, waste, annihilation . . . Whoever kissed the cold, burning lips of the Ice Maiden was seared with an ecstasy of death . . .” Now, in The Prodigal, the Ice Maiden is “a blonde waitress in Zermatt.”
The Mexican episode appropriately becomes an elegy for his twin brother, Roddy — the playwright Roderick Walcott — the news of whose death apparently reached him when he was in Guadalajara. The remembrance is all the more poignant for the matter-of-fact, conversational style: “March 11. 8.35 a.m. Guadalajara, Saturday. / Roddy. Toronto. Cremated today. / . . . Roddy. Where are you this bright afternoon? / I am watching a soccer match listlessly . . .” Roddy’s death takes him naturally back to his childhood, and to all the dear departed who lie in the cemetery “where my brother and our mother live now / at the one address, so many are their neighbours!” It takes him back, more deeply, to the idea of his own mortality, which has been a theme driving the poem. The wanderer is coming home.
Part III is the most nuanced and fully explored of all the homecomings that have featured across the span of Walcott’s poetry. The poem now, in moments of radiant simplicity, breathes gratitude for the “balm” and “benediction” of return to the loved starting-place:
A grey dawn, dun. Rain-gauze shrouding the headlands.
A rainbow like a bruise through cottony cumuli.
Then, health! Salvation! Sails blaze in the sun.
A twin-sailed shallop rounding Pigeon Island.
This line is my horizon.
I cannot be happier than this.
But it is not a simple matter of forgetting the wanderings and saying, “Here I am,” and all questions are settled. It is a reflective, still self-questioning return. The wanderings and Europe are also what made him. Now he makes memorable summations of issues that he has worried at throughout his poetic journey: “So has it come to this, to have to choose?” — “no, the point is not comparison or mimicry.” Although, in the “flare of the flame tree” and in the shadow of “the darkening trees, the pouis / against the Santa Cruz hills” “great cities [are] receding, Madrid, Genoa,” they still rise in his memory and imagination. “Both worlds are welded, they were seamed by delight.”
This poem, which wanders so widely, is, in the end, very much about one man’s quest for himself: “wandering the Village in search of another subject / other than yourself, it is yourself you meet.” The Prodigal, then, is as much about the point of view from which its author now views the world (which in many ways is how he has always viewed the world) as it is about anything else. So he says of the book, “Look at it any way you like, it’s an old man’s book.” He sees himself in other ageing men he meets, in his reflection in the mirror, in the time of day:
dusk delicate as an old gentleman
with mottled hands and watery eyes, our host.
Diabetic, dying, my double.
One thinks of Yeats’s cry in “Sailing to Byzantium”:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress . . .
Our ageing prodigal, gazing wincingly but squarely at “the disassembled man” in the mirror of his mind, nonetheless still claps his hands and sings as movingly as ever. At the end, on a dolphin-sighting boat ride up the islands, when, against his skepticism, the legendary creatures break water:
not a crest, and then splaying open under the keel
and racing with the bow, the legend broke water
and was reborn, her screams of joy
and my heart drumming harder, and the pale blue islands
were no longer phantom outlines and the elate spray
slapped our faces with joy . . .
The rhythm pulses onward as his heart drums harder through a sentence many lines long. The moment is visionary, and brings to mind, but in a somewhat different key, the “dolphin-torn [and] gong-tormented sea” of Yeats’s “Byzantium.”
If anyone had told him, the poet-prodigal says,
“On a day of great delight you will see dolphins” . . .
I would not have believed in them, being too old
and skeptical of the fury of one life’s
determined benedictions, but they are here.
Angels and dolphins.
The faith which, long ago, in “Return to D’Ennery, Rain”, Walcott said he had lost, was never really lost; it had barrelled too deep under the keel of his heart.
Addressing himself, the poet refers to the book as “what will be your last book”. If it turns out to be that, it will have been a fitting conclusion. But we cannot be other than ourselves, and Walcott has characterised himself as the man who has no choice each morning, as long as life allows, but to chain himself to his desk and renew his work with the oar of his pen.