The Prodigal: A Poem
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004, ISBN 0374237433, 112 Pages, Hardcover $20.00. [Browse/Purchase]
Review by Eli Jelly-Schapiro
In 1957 Derek Walcott left his Caribbean for another geographic archetype of the New World, New York City. The future Nobel Laureate was 27, and had come to study theatre as a Rockefeller fellow. He would write of those cold dark months in the city, “and since that winter I have learnt to gaze/ on life indifferently as if through a pane of glass.” Walcott, who is of English, Dutch and African ancestry, was born on the small Lesser Antilles island of St. Lucia. The island has never left the artist, nor has the singular brilliance of the poet, his breathtaking ability to elucidate place through language with an exactness and care that speaks of anything but indifference.
Even before Walcott published his first book of poetry at the age of 18, the young writer had thought assiduously about the relationship of his art to his island, and his art/island to the world beyond the Caribbean. There was a time when the young artist felt as though leaving the island was tantamount to betrayal. Each journey outside the archipelago, that first trip to New York perhaps more than any other, has represented a crossing-over; the artist, formerly one with his subject, is forced to adopt a more detached perspective and confront the complexities attendant to such a shift. Yet, as Walcott so often expresses in his verse, the Caribbean and its people are born from exile, and thus familiar with the conflicting feelings of alienation and euphoria engendered by the otherness of their existence.
In his newest work, the stunning and multi-textured book-length poem The Prodigal, Walcott speaks to us from amongst other places Boston, Milan, the Alps, Paris, Germany, and even, for a moment, “magisterial Jersey.” Travel is an essential theme throughout Walcott’s oeuvre, as is the notion of exile in general. In previous works, the poet meditates on the idea of Crusoeian isolation. Exiled from one another and the world by the omnipotent sea, the islands of the Caribbean are the very embodiment of apartness. While both cursed and blessed by this physical exile, Walcott suggests that the project of the Caribbean must be to step outside of history itself: to see the world with fresh eyes, as would a child born in the same breath as the unnamed landscape.
In his famous early poem “A Far Cry from Africa” Walcott asked, “I who am poisoned with the blood of both, / Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?” The answer of course, is to turn towards the Caribbean, the place that is neither one nor the other, but pure difference. Burdened with the dueling narratives of colonization and slavery, the Caribbean inhabitant must work to rediscover his own historical agency. Just as the native Carib jumped en masse into the sea, choosing suicide rather than subservience to the Spanish, the people of the Caribbean must embrace the dark nothingness of amnesia, from which newness can be created. In his Collected Poems, Walcott imagines the “history orphaned island” as a New World Eden, a place where the Adamic artist ecstatically names the world within the horizon, “with the same care, the precise exhilaration/ with which the heron’s footprint pronounces ‘earth.’” The landscape is liberation; “and in the salt chuckle of rocks/with their sea pools, there was the sound/ like a rumor without any echo/ of History, really beginning.”
Despite Walcott’s lifelong devotion to his native Caribbean, the allure of Europe has always been strong. In The Prodigal, Walcott declares, “the old world felt more familiar.” Perhaps it is ironically so, but familiarity alone is ultimately not what the poet seeks. Walcott is searching for revolutionary possibility, not genetic nostalgia. As a young man, Walcott wrote, “the classics console, but not enough.” The Europe of The Prodigal is awe-inspiring, but again, it is not enough. Walcott may find cataclysmic metaphor in hotel swimming pools and the aura of attractive young women “who contain their cities,” but in the end, it is to St. Lucia where he will faithfully return. Though the conclusion is foregone, the journey is no less spectacular for its lack of suspense.
In The Prodigal, the star of the promenading is Europe, with its aged grandeur, broad avenues and insistent monuments to the past. If the Caribbean has been “absolved of a history/ it did not commit,” as Walcott once wrote, then Europe trudges on, unable to escape the history it is guilty of, but beautiful still in its somberness, in its knack for fiction, for re-imagination. While Europe must realize exile through its stories, Walcott’s Caribbean will emerge from innate exile to compose its own version of Genesis. Thus Walcott the wanderer is stuck between two worlds, one trying to escape its refined-ness, the other trying to define its newness.
In The Arkansas Testament Walcott wrote, “to have loved one horizon is insularity; / it blindfolds vision, it narrows experience.” In The Prodigal, Walcott recalls a time when he held onto a more parochial dogma: “There was a vow I made, rigid apprentice, / to the horizontal sunrise, acolyte/ to the shallows’ imprecations, to the odour/ of earth turned by the rain . . .as the natural powers I knew, swearing not to leave them/ for real principalities in Berlin or Milan.” This is the poet that embarked on that virginal journey to New York, the skeptical traveler longing to find belonging or hemispheric continuity but realizing instead the nightmare of alienation. Subsequent journeys, and the exilic meditations that they inspired, have produced less tragic deductions. In The Prodigal the tenor of Walcott’s verse is at times that of tearful joy, as when he so tenderly intones, “to go to Germany for the beautiful phrase/ unter den Linden, which, like a branch in sunshine/ means ‘without History, under the linden trees.’”
When Walcott journeyed to New York in the fifties, he envisioned the migration as something of a Guevarian expedition into the universal America, that utopian dream, which inhabits the spirit of people and landscapes from the Yukon to Tierra del Fuego. If what he found was a prosaic city of angular concrete and icy repression, the particular cynicism Walcott took back to St. Lucia with him would pass on. In the final chapters of The Prodigal Walcott adopts a melancholic tone quite different from the one he affected as a young man in Manhattan. Reflecting on the time he has spent in Italy, Walcott plaintively concludes: “until after a while there was nothing left of him/ except this: a name cut on a wall that soon/ from the grime of indifference became indecipherable.” Perhaps what was once a cold, disaffected remoteness has become a gazed burdened instead by the aloofness of its subject. Faced with his own mortality, the poet sees a world ready to let his words die. The Caribbean then, those islands that are reborn every day and do not believe in the pretense of remembrance, is as it ever was, the home and the theatre for this irrevocable artist of the New World.
1 April 2005
Derek Walcott is listed in the Brazen Head’s Joyce Influences section.