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Seven poems by Derek Walcott

  • Published at 01:07 pm April 7th, 2017
  • Last updated at 04:54 pm April 25th, 2017
Seven poems by Derek Walcott
A far cry from Africa A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt Of Africa. Kikuyu, quick as flies, Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt. Corpses are scattered through a paradise. Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries: “Waste no compassion on these separate dead!” Statistics justify and scholars seize The salients of colonial policy. What is that to the white child hacked in bed? To savages, expendable as Jews? Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break In a white dust of ibises whose cries Have wheeled since civilization’s dawn From the parched river or beast-teeming plain. The violence of beast on beast is read As natural law, but upright man Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain. Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum, While he calls courage still that native dread Of the white peace contracted by the dead. Again brutish necessity wipes its hands Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again A waste of our compassion, as with Spain, The gorilla wrestles with the superman. I who am poisoned with the blood of both, Where shall I turn, divided to the vein? I who have cursed The drunken officer of British rule, how choose Between this Africa and the English tongue I love? Betray them both, or give back what they give? How can I face such slaughter and be cool? How can I turn from Africa and live? (From Selected Poems) Love after love The time will come when, with elation you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror and each will smile at the other's welcome, and say, sit here. Eat. You will love again the stranger who was your self. Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored for another, who knows you by heart. Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, the photographs, the desperate notes, peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life. (From Collected Poems, 1948–1984) Fist The fist clenched round my heart loosens a little, and I gasp brightness; but it tightens again. When have I ever not loved the pain of love? But this has moved past love to mania. This has the strong clench of the madman, this is gripping the ledge of unreason, before plunging howling into the abyss. Hold hard then, heart. This way at least you live. (From Collected Poems: 1948-1984) Blues Those five or six young guys lunched on the stoop that oven-hot summer night whistled me over. Nice and friendly. So, I stop. MacDougal or Christopher Street in chains of light. A summer festival. Or some saint's. I wasn't too far from home, but not too bright for a nigger, and not too dark. I figured we were all one, wop, nigger, jew, besides, this wasn't Central Park. I'm coming on too strong? You figure right! They beat this yellow nigger black and blue. Yeah. During all this, scared on case one used a knife, I hung my olive-green, just-bought sports coat on a fire plug. I did nothing. They fought each other, really. Life gives them a few kicks, that's all. The spades, the spicks. My face smashed in, my bloddy mug pouring, my olive-branch jacket saved from cuts and tears, I crawled four flights upstairs. Sprawled in the gutter, I remember a few watchers waved loudly, and one kid's mother shouting like 'Jackie' or 'Terry,' 'now that's enough!' It's nothing really. They don't get enough love. You know they wouldn't kill you. Just playing rough, like young Americans will. Still it taught me somthing about love. If it's so tough, forget it. (From Selected Poems) The sea is history Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs? Where is your tribal memory? Sirs, in that grey vault. The sea. The sea has locked them up. The sea is History. First, there was the heaving oil, heavy as chaos; then, like a light at the end of a tunnel, the lantern of a caravel, and that was Genesis. Then there were the packed cries, the shit, the moaning: Exodus. Bone soldered by coral to bone, mosaics mantled by the benediction of the shark’s shadow, that was the Ark of the Covenant. Then came from the plucked wires of sunlight on the sea floor the plangent harps of the Babylonian bondage, as the white cowries clustered like manacles on the drowned women, and those were the ivory bracelets of the Song of Solomon, but the ocean kept turning blank pages looking for History. Then came the men with eyes heavy as anchors who sank without tombs, brigands who barbecued cattle, leaving their charred ribs like palm leaves on the shore, then the foaming, rabid maw of the tidal wave swallowing Port Royal, and that was Jonah, but where is your Renaissance? Sir, it is locked in them sea-sands out there past the reef’s moiling shelf, where the men-o’-war floated down; strop on these goggles, I’ll guide you there myself. It’s all subtle and submarine, through colonnades of coral, past the gothic windows of sea-fans to where the crusty grouper, onyx-eyed, blinks, weighted by its jewels, like a bald queen; and these groined caves with barnacles pitted like stone are our cathedrals, and the furnace before the hurricanes: Gomorrah. Bones ground by windmills into marl and cornmeal, and that was Lamentations— that was just Lamentations, it was not History; then came, like scum on the river’s drying lip, the brown reeds of villages mantling and congealing into towns, and at evening, the midges’ choirs, and above them, the spires lancing the side of God as His son set, and that was the New Testament. Then came the white sisters clapping to the waves’ progress, and that was Emancipation— jubilation, O jubilation— vanishing swiftly as the sea’s lace dries in the sun, but that was not History, that was only faith, and then each rock broke into its own nation; then came the synod of flies, then came the secretarial heron, then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote, fireflies with bright ideas and bats like jetting ambassadors and the mantis, like khaki police, and the furred caterpillars of judges examining each case closely, and then in the dark ears of ferns and in the salt chuckle of rocks with their sea pools, there was the sound like a rumour without any echo of History, really beginning. (From Selected Poems) The day, with all its pain ahead, is yours The day, with all its pain ahead, is yours. The ceaseless creasing of the morning sea, the fluttering gamboge cedar leaves allegro, the rods of the yawning branches trolling the breeze, the rusted meadows, the wind-whitened grass, the coos of the stone-colored ground doves on the road, the echo of benediction on a house – its rooms of pain, its verandah of remorse when joy lanced through its open-hearted doors like a hummingbird out to the garden and pool in which the sky has fallen. These are all yours, and pain has made them brighter as absence does after a death, as the light heals the grass. And the twig-brown lizard scuttles up its branch like fingers on the struts of a guitar. I hear the detonations of agave the stuttering outbursts of bougainvillea, I see the acacia's bonfire, the begonia's bayonets, and the tamarind's thorns and the broadsides of clouds from the calabash and the cedars fluttering their white flags of surrender and the flame trees' siege of the fort. I saw black bulls, horns lowered, galloping, goring the mist that rose, unshrouding the hillocks of Santa Cruz and the olives of Esperanza Andalusian idyll, and answer and the moon's blank tambourine and the drizzle's guitars and the sunlit wires of the rain the shawls and the used stars and the ruined fountains. (From Prodigy) In the village I I came up out of the subway and there were people standing on the steps as if they knew something I didn’t. This was in the Cold War, and nuclear fallout. I looked and the whole avenue was empty, I mean utterly, and I thought, The birds have abandoned our cities and the plague of silence multiplies through their arteries, they fought the war and they lost and there’s nothing subtle or vague in this horrifying vacuum that is New York. I caught the blare of a loudspeaker repeatedly warning the last few people, maybe strolling lovers in their walk, that the world was about to end that morning on Sixth or Seventh Avenue with no people going to work in that uncontradicted, horrifying perspective. It was no way to die, but it’s also no way to live. Well, if we burnt, it was at least New York. II Everybody in New York is in a sitcom. I’m in a Latin American novel, one in which an egret-haired viejo shakes with some invisible sorrow, some obscene affliction, and chronicles it secretly, till it shows in his face, the parenthetical wrinkles confirming his fiction to his deep embarrassment. Look, it’s just the old story of a heart that won’t call it quits whatever the odds, quixotic. It’s just one that’ll break nobody’s heart, even if the grizzled colonel pitches from his steed in a cavalry charge, in a battle that won’t make him a statue. It is the hell of ordinary, unrequited love. Watch these egrets trudging the lawn in a dishevelled troop, white banners trailing forlornly; they are the bleached regrets of an old man’s memoirs, printed stanzas. showing their hinged wings like wide open secrets. III Who has removed the typewriter from my desk, so that I am a musician without his piano with emptiness ahead as clear and grotesque as another spring? My veins bud, and I am so full of poems, a wastebasket of black wire. The notes outside are visible; sparrows will line antennae like staves, the way springs were, but the roofs are cold and the great grey river where a liner glides, huge as a winter hill, moves imperceptibly like the accumulating years. I have no reason to forgive her for what I brought on myself. I am past hating, past the longing for Italy where blowing snow absolves and whitens a kneeling mountain range outside Milan. Through glass, I am waiting for the sound of a bird to unhinge the beginning of spring, but my hands, my work, feel strange without the rusty music of my machine. No words for the Arctic liner moving down the Hudson, for the mange of old snow moulting from the roofs. No poems. No birds. IV The Sweet Life Café If I fall into a grizzled stillness sometimes, over the red-chequered tablecloth outdoors of the Sweet Life Café, when the noise of Sunday traffic in the Village is soft as a moth working in storage, it is because of age which I rarely admit to, or, honestly, even think of. I have kept the same furies, though my domestic rage is illogical, diabetic, with no lessening of love though my hand trembles wildly, but not over this page. My lust is in great health, but, if it happens that all my towers shrivel to dribbling sand, joy will still bend the cane-reeds with my pen’s elation on the road to Vieuxfort with fever-grass white in the sun, and, as for the sea breaking in the gap at Praslin, they add up to the grace I have known and which death will be taking from my hand on this chequered tablecloth in this good place. (From White Egrets) (All the poems were culled from sources that offer materials devoid of copyright issues)