And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

søndag 31. juli 2016

Derek Walcott in the fjords

Being from a small town in a western Norwegian fjord has given me a deep-rooted affection for the sea. This affection has been nurtured since my childhood, and every summer I try to spend as much time as I can by the fjord to enjoy the wonderful fragrances of sea-salt, sea-weed and the intense greenery growing wild along the western side of my native fjord. I sometimes think that it is in large part because of this love of the sea that I have embraced the poetry of Derek Walcott, my favourite poet of all times and a native of the Caribbean republic Saint Lucia. To Walcott, the sea carries a great importance, both as a geographic feature, as a vehicle for poetic imagination, and as a receptacle of history. "The sea is history" is the title of one of Walcott's most powerful poems, and many of his works are dedicated to fleshing out this notion. But in the construction of the history contained by the sea, which erases all traces of history by its very nature, also takes on something of a mythopoeic dimension in the writings of Derek Walcott. This is perhaps most clearly seen in his book-length poem Omeros, where the history of Saint Lucia is built up around a homeric core.

The omnipresence of the sea in Walcott's poetry is perhaps particularly striking to someone who has grown up close to the sea, and whenever I read these verses I immediately think of the summer days spent exploring my native fjord. It doesn't matter that Walcott speaks of palm fronds, frigate birds and invokes the green night of Andrew Marvell's "Bermuda". Along my fjord, there are ferns and hazels as dominant as palms and just as green as any Marvellian vision of Bermudan forests, and the seagulls, cormorants, oystercatchers and herons are as deeply mythological as the Caribbean aviary of Walcott's poetry. Whenever I read Derek Walcott I envision my native fjord, and from time to time I bring a book of his verse to the fjord to get a more intense experience. I did this last week, and sat underneath a hazel ceiling while reading Midsummer while the scent of the sea mingled with the smell of the book's pages. It was marvellous.

In this blogpost, therefore, I want to juxtapose the poetry of Derek Walcott with some pictures taken on or by the fjord of my native village, Hyen. By doing so, I hope to convey some fraction of the sensation I experience when reading Walcott. Naturally, reading poetry is deeply emotional and therefore individual, so I do not have any expectations about this juxtaposition, beyond kindling the understanding that poetry about the sea is ultimately universal.

Hyefjorden, view from the bottom of the fjord

Missing the Sea

[From The Castaway and other poems, 1965]

Something removed roars in the ears of this house,
Hangs its drapes windless, stuns mirrors
Till reflections lack substance.

Some sound like the gnashing of windmills ground
To a dead halt;
A deafening absence, a blow.

It hoops this valley, weighs this mountain,
Estranges gesture, pushes this pencil
Through a thick nothing now,

Freights cupboards with silence, folds sour laundry
Like the clothes of the dead left exactly
As the dead behaved by the beloved,

Incredulous, expecting occupancy.

View from a boat going outwards, looking back towards the bottom of the fjord

The Harbour

[From In a Green Night, 1962]

The fishermen rowing homeward in the dusk
Do not consider the stillness through which they move,
So I, since feelings drown, should no more ask
For the safe twilight which your calm hands gave.
And the night, urger of old lies,
Winked at by stars that sentry the humped hills,
Should hear no secret faring-forth; time knows
That bitter and sly sea, and love raises walls.
Yet others who now watch my progress outward,
On a sea which is crueller than any word
Of love, may see in me the calm my passage makes,
Braving new water in an antique hoax;
And the secure from thinking may climb safe to liners
Hearing small rumours of paddlers drowned near stars.

Landfall, Grenada

[From The Gulf and other poems, 1969]

Where you are rigidly anchored,
the groundswell of blue foothills, the blown canes
surging to cumuli cannot be heard;
like the slow, seamless ocean,
one motion folds the grass where you were lowered,
and the tiered sea
whose grandeurs you detested
climbs out of sound.

Its moods held no mythology
for you, it was a working place
of tonnage and ruled stars;
you chose your landfall with a mariner's
casual certainty,
calm as that race
into whose heart your harboured;
your death was a log's entry,
your suffering held the strenuous
reticence of those
whose rites are never public,
hating to impose, to offend.
Deep friend, teach me to learn
such ease, such landfall going,
such mocking tolerance of those
neat gravestone elegies
that rhyme our end.

Brise Marine

[From In a Green Night, 1962]

K with quick laughter, honey skin and hair,
and always money. In what beach shade, what year
has she so scented with her gentleness
I cannot watch bright water but think of her
and that fine morning when she sang O rare
Ben's lyric of "the bag o' the bee"
and "the nard in the fire"
                           "nard in the fire"
against the salty music of the sea
the fresh breeze tangling each honey tress
                           and what year was the fire?
Girls' faces dim with time, Andreuille all gold...
Sunday. The grass peeps through the breaking pier.
Tables in the trees, like entering Renoir.
Maintenant je n'ai plus ni fortune, ni pouvoir...
 But when the light was setting through thin hair,
Holding whose hand by what trees, what old wall.

Two honest women, Christ, where are they gone?
Out of that wonder, what do I recall?
The darkness closing round a fisherman's oar.
The sound of water ganwing at bright stone.              

In a Green Night

[From In a Green Night, 1962]

The orange tree, in various light,
Proclaims perfected fables now
That her last season's summer height
Bends from each overburdened bough.

She has her winters and her spring,
Her moult of leaves, which in their fall
Reveal, as with each living thing,
Zones truer than the tropical.

For if by night each golden sun
Burns in a comfortable creed,
By noon harsh fires have begun
To quail those splendours which they feed.

Or mixtures of the dew and dust
That early shone her orbs of brass,
Mottle her splendours with the rust
She sought all summer to surpass.

By such strange, cyclic chemistry
That dooms and glories her at once
As green yet aging orange tree,
The mind enspheres all circumstance.

No Florida loud with citron leaves
With crystal falls to heal this age
Shall calm the darkening fear that grieves
The loss of visionary rage.

Or if Time's fires seem to blight
The nature ripening into art,
Not the fierce noon or lampless night
Can quail the comprehending heart.

The orange tree, in various light,
Proclaims that fable perfect now
That her last season's summer height
Bends from each overburdened bough.

Gulls screech with rusty tongues
- Derek Walcott


[From The Castaway and other poems, 1965]

Schizophrenic, wrenched by two styles,
one a hack's hired prose, I earn
my exile, I trudge this sickle, moonlit beach for miles,

tan, burn
to slough off
this love of ocean that's self-love.

To change your language you must change your life.

I cannot right old wrongs.
Waves tire of horizon and return.
Gulls screech with rusty tongues

Above the beached, rotting pirogues,
they were a venomous beaked cloud at Charlotteville.

Once I thought love of country was enough,
now, even if I chose, there's no room at the trough.

I watch the best minds root like dogs
for scraps of favour.
I am nearing middle

age, burnt skin
peels form my hand like paper, onion-thin,
like Peer Gynt's riddle.

At heart there's nothing, not the dread
of death. I know too many dead.
They're all familiar, all in character,

even how they died. On fire,
the flesh no longer fears that furnace mouth
of earth,

that kiln or ashpit of the sun,
nor this clouding, unclouding sickle moon
whitening this beach again like a blank page.

All its indifference is a different rage.

All these poems have been transcribed from Collected Poems 1948-1984, Faber and Faber limited, 1992.

For similar blogposts:

Ruins of a Great House

Two poems by Derek Walcott

The Prince


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