Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"What Change Had Brought"

The sharp eyes of the Telegraph have spotted President-Elect Barack Obama holding a new copy of Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott's Collected Poems, 1948-1984. Walcott (b. 1930) was born on the island of St. Lucia in the West Indies, and has divided most of his adult life between Boston and the Caribbean. "Divided" is an appropriate word. The first section of his autobiographical poem, "Another Life" (1973), is titled "The Divided Child." Of mixed African and European descent, Walcott was born in a British colony that for centuries had passed between France and England, and was raised as an English speaker among the island's predominantly Creole population. He received a classical education in a colonial school, absorbing the language of Shakespeare and the mythology of Homer and the Greeks and the images of European art.

Division, "halving," is a recurring theme in Walcott's poetry. In "Goats and Monkeys," he contemplates Shakespeare's Othello and Desdemona, black man and white woman, with disturbing images of darkness and light:
The owl's torches gutter. Chaos clouds the globe.
Shriek, augury! His earthen bulk
buries her bosom in its slow eclipse.
His smoky hand has charred
That marble throat. Bent to her lips
he is Africa, a vast sidling shadow
that halves your world with doubt.
In one of my favorite poems, "A Map of Europe," he imagines a light that reveals everything as it is:
In it is no lacrimae rerum,
No art. Only the gift
To see things as they are, halved by by a darkness
From which they cannot shift.
Metaphor is not merely a poetic device for Walcott, it is a central means of negotiating between the New World and the Old, black and white, Caribbean and classical. Walcott's poetry is always conscious of these divisions, but still offers the possibility of wholeness. As J. Edward Chamberlin writes about Walcott's poem "The Season of Phantasmal Peace": "In his divided consciousness we continue to sense a dream of wholeness for himself and for his people, in a place...where the compassion that is at the heart of poetry generates an image of transcendence, a loophole beyond all 'the betrayals of falling suns'—in that hovering moment between past and future, within the dichotomies of time and space, around the history of his people." [1]
and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.
This is Barack Obama's moment. Like Derek Walcott, Obama in his own person bridges the divisions of race, and in his own poetic language he offers the possibility of wholeness: "Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well."

[1] J. Edward Chamberlin, Come Back to Me My Language: Poetry and the West Indies (University of Illinois Press, 1993), 173.

The title of this post is from Walcott's poem "The Season of Phantasmal Peace."

Thanks to Adriana Estill for pointing out the article from the Telegraph.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful, wonderful post, and what a beautiful, wonderful thing that the president-elect reads (and writes and speaks!) poetry. I'll donate $1000 if his first state of the union address is in rhyme.

Bleeet said...

There's a similar picture from November, 2000. In it, President-elect George W. Bush can be seen to be holding a copy of The Pokey Little Puppy.

There are three bookmarks to pertinent passages visible in the picture upon close inspection.

Adriana said...

Thanks for the hat tip, Rob. More importantly, thanks for the lyrical post about Walcott and his negotiations of culture, class, and race.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .