Stark and exquisite bounty

 

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Category: Reviews Date: 25 Jun 98


Forgive me for the exultation I feel at the possibility of escape from Trinidad this summer. During long dry afternoons when the heat was unbearable, the hills scraped dry, the shout on the road angry, menacing, for not buying stolen mangoes, my answering rage shouted that real life was elsewhere.

 

I willed the drooping man with his hungry eyes and incessant ringing on my door to go away. My compassion evaporated at their “gimme, gimme” aggression. I remained stubborn. My goodwill sapped by suppressed violence, made stronger because it is brewed with a sense of impotence, helplessness.

 

There were many of them. The one who could no longer be a coconut vendor because one day he sliced a bit of his hand off, the one who took groceries and sold them still packaged at the bottom of the street, the one who goes about scraping pavements, pulling grass, and then stares at you with expectation of a reward under some oblique threat.

 

Everyday papers present another savagery, the news another body, the aggressive toss of the head of men arrested for murder. The TV news, grey, out of focus, with drop-outs and bad shots showed near drought, industrial action, floods, parliamentarians with bad grammar.

 

Nothing engaged the intellect. Life must be elsewhere. Not on this island which smells of disappointment on every burnt corner over wilting fruit. In this white heat oranges dry up, faces become mean and pinched as dry oranges. I longed for grace. It came with the miraculous balm of rain, and where scalding fires raged, now ran rivers of water. I rejoiced at the garden of weeds. They are fecund, green. Then came the murky pools of water - bed high in bedrooms, knee high in the streets. A boy stands on the rim of a steel bed in a dingy room full of dirty water. Dengue, damp, mosquitoes. The respite was short as it always is. Not long enough for replenishment. I need to miss its colours, need to become nostalgic, so I could feel grateful again.

 

The subconscious always compensates. I dreamed of ancient ornate chariots racing across a vast landscape of paddy-fields, crops of tea. First it was just smells and sensations; pickled meat in a hill-side rest stop, hot cardamom tea in glasses, smoky daal and ragi kei roti (rye bread) from a hut on a snowy hillside, jasmines in oiled hair.

 

Then came sound and sensations. Scattered and unconnected. The thundering wheels of a train on a dark night, rattling on a bunk, in-between cities thousands of miles apart, the sickness from sitting in a car spiralling upwards from Kalka to Simla, the feel of the pallo of a feather-light chiffon sari. It was the India of a small child who never stopped travelling.

 

I met a man who told me his entire fence in New York is painted red, white and black. He says he has a Trinidadian room, filled with posters of Carib girls and photographs of Maracas Bay. He says he eats nothing but West Indian food in America. He has been an immigrant for more than 25 years. “Home is home,” he ended, inchoate, with yet unexpressed contradictions raging in him. An outward pride of achieving status at home by “making it abroad, weeping nostalgia, loss, the defiant guilt of a traitor.”

 

When you are a Nobel laureate you bring definition to the inchoate. As Derek Walcott, writing poetry at 65, you are lucid, literary, plucking phrases and metaphors with ease, brush painting with words, a vast easel at your disposal, frames and worlds of references. Your tools, sir, are tremendous. The Bounty, Walcott’s first volume of poetry since Omeros, is covered yellow like the sun at noon. It is a wide frame for a painting by himself of a common sight here: of a lush landscape, shades of green, some brown, relieved by a single orange Immortelle tree. This volume of poetry is not to be read. It is porous. It is to be absorbed, through the skin: Elegiac verses to the people he has loved and lost to death: his mother, Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, Charles Applewhaite, "a pillar of the Theatre Workshop" who died last year. “But can she or can she not read this? Can you read this, Mamma, or hear it?” Sad yes, but not without his customary wit as... now, so many deaths, nothing short of a massacre from the wild scythe blindly flailing friends, flowers, and grass, as the seaside city of graves expands its acre and the only art left is the preparation of grace. So, for my Hic Jacet, my own epitaph: “Here lies DW. This place is good to die in. It really was.”

 

He comforts himself with the thought that the people he loved and died are now part of his beloved landscape. They contribute to the bounty that is his, “not only are they relieved of our customary sorrow, they are without hunger, without any appetite, but are part of earth’s vegetal fury; their veins grow with the wild mammy-apple, the open-handed breadfruit, their heart in the open pomegranate, in the sliced avocado; ground-doves pick from their palms; ants carry the freight of their sweetness, their absence in all that we eat, their savour that sweetens all of our multiple juices, their faith that we break and chew in a wedge of cassava, and here at first is the astonishment: that earth rejoices in the middle of our agony.”

 

The poet at 65, with the death of his friends fresh in his mind, is acutely aware of his mortality. But in The Bounty, he attempts immortality. Not the kind he has already achieved but a more personal one, where he cleverly imagines the landscape after his death.

 

By imagining himself immersed in the landscape, embodying it, after death, he takes control of his death, and lives beyond it. “Your death is closer than an ant, as you look up to the day ahead, bountiful, abundant. I look up at the dry hill in the sun, each shadow a thought. I imagine my absence; the fatigued leaves will fall one by one into soundless brown grass in drought but with the seam of air I inhabited closed. I offer these lines with their thorns to whoever can use them, the scales of my two islands swayed into place. I bequeath my eyes to whoever admires Paramin, my ears to the caves of Las Cuevas, when the silver knots loosed from nerve-strings and arteries, and cloud-pages close in amen.

“Therefore, I foresee myself as blessedly invisible, anonymous and transparent as the wind, a leaf-light traveller between branches and stones, the clear, the unsayable voice that moves over the uncut grass and the yellow bell of an Allamanda by the wall. All of this will soon be true, but without sorrow, the way stones allow everything to happen, the way the sea shines in the sun, silver and bountiful in the slow afternoon.”

 

The Bounty is both a homecoming and a departure. It is the anatomy of, as Walcott so elegantly puts it, an “émigré” - a man without a country. Walcott’s émigré, like all the Diaspora, has to wrestle with mangled loyalties. His émigré has obscure and atavistic longings for the region of his birth; a breeze carrying jasmines, or the earthy smell of heavy rain on loose earth, the warm jostle of a crowded marketplace, lemon morning sunlight on a washed temple floor could bring a faraway homeland to mind.

 

But Walcott’s émigré is not simply of a man born in one country, transplanted to another, lived in another, loved another. But Walcott's West Indian émigré has a double disadvantage. Not only does he suffer from being away from his country, but the very homeland to which he does belong, remains undefined. His people have little memory of their origin, ancestry, language. They are new transplants, their roots cut away beneath them. There is a certain emptiness here, for which the landscape only half compensates.

 

“There is nothing except the sun at the end of the street and a hot sea framed between the decaying houses, then a limp and listless wave rising from the heat like an old man’s hand brushing gnats from his eyes and a file of canary-coloured ducklings.”

There is pain of exile, of loss and severance here, but also advantage, and love. Still his aching love is not enough to keep him here.

“My fingers are like thorns and my eyes are wet like logwood leaves after a drizzle, the kind in which the sun and the rain contend for the same place like the two languages I know - one so rich in its imperial intimacies, its echo of privilege, the other like the orange words of a hillside in drought - but my love of both wide as the Atlantic is large.”

 

The volume ends with the poet’s departure, the journey to the airport and the take-off. I read the references to familiar places, Chaguanas, Aranguez, San Juan and Santa Cruz, with a little shock of pleasure, privilege.

“The junction. Divina Pastora. Napkin clouds over Jean’s Hot Roti Shop: Sabbath. Now silence takes rot on the roadside like weeds and runs through Santa Cruz under a bride, through wild canes, emptying the brilliant fruit stalls that are San Juan’s, the highway sheds on the verge under indigo mountains flashing from the far abbey of the Benedictines like a piece of Cordoba.

“It is indigo now and the sea will continue to burn until the last plane cross with its green and red wing-lights headed north.”

He will be back: “In the hot, hollow afternoon a shout crosses the valley, a hawk glides, and behind the flame of the Immortelle a hill burns with a flute of blue smoke; this is all there is of value.”

 

If the art of poetry and painting can be interchanged, The Bounty by Derek Walcott is a painting that is both stark and exquisite. It is restorative, presenting to us small island people a perspective of ourselves which is naturally abundant, and wide as the sea and sky. This yellow slim volume of poetry has succeeded in defining our islands in images that will endure. At sunset, in that half-hour the colour of regret, when the surf, older than your hand, writes: “It is nothing, and it is this nothingness that makes it great.”

 

At a deeply personal level, in The Bounty this Nobel Laureate has given us the means to accept the hardest of human lessons - death, our own and that of those we love - with the bounty of these islands we call ours.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur