Abandoning Dead Metaphors: The Caribbean Phase of Derek Walcott’s Poetry,
by Patricia Ismond (UWI Press, 309 pp, ISBN 976-640-107-1)
Review by Nicholas Laughlin
published in the Trinidad and Tobago Review, March 2003
Derek Walcott is our indispensable poet.
A.J. Seymour’s gracious poems came earlier; Martin Carter’s
have occasionally, at moments of public crisis, seemed more
immediately apt; Kamau Brathwaite’s ancestral rhythms appeal
more viscerally to some. But Walcott, since the appearance
of his first major works in the 1960s, has been indisputably
foremost among his peers: genuinely popular with the reading
public, quoted in the speeches of politicians and priests
alike, and an overshadowing influence on two succeeding
generations of English-speaking Caribbean poets. Naturally,
he has been solidly popular in the lecture-rooms and
courtyards of the academies also: his poems, plays, and
essays have made a substantial seam for our professors’
excavations; it’s a little surprising to discover, in the
early pages of Abandoning Dead Metaphors, that forty
years of scholarly burrowing have turned up, until now, only
four book-length studies of Walcott’s work.
In the ranks of the Walcott scholars, Patricia Ismond has marched at a uniquely steadfast pace. A glance through her bibliography reveals that her first paper on his poems was published as long ago as 1971. She has been recognised as a leading Walcott expert for more than a quarter-century; in my UWI days, the undergraduates whispered, half in awe, about the ferocity of her devotion, and she herself cracked the occasional joke about it in her otherwise rigorous tutorials. Ismond’s colleagues have long awaited the publication of this major study, a scrupulous, finely-detailed analysis of the poems of what she calls Walcott’s Caribbean phase, starting with the prodigy’s juvenilia in 25 Poems (1948) and proceeding through In a Green Night (1962), The Castaway (1965), The Gulf (1970), Sea Grapes (1976), and The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979), lingering especially over Another Life (1973), his great autobiographical long poem.
Soon after The Star-Apple Kingdom, Walcott accepted a teaching position in the United States, and what you might call the international phase of his career was launched: a rise to fame, financial success, the laurels of the Swedish Academy. From The Fortunate Traveller (1981) onwards, Walcott’s poetry reflected his residence outside the Caribbean and his increasing engagement with the wider world; this is the poetry best known to foreign critics and readers. Ismond’s intent is to refocus our “proper appreciation” on Walcott’s formative earlier work, “the place where he pursues the revolutionary effort native to his purpose as a writer of colonial origins, to arrive at the maturity of definitions of self and identity”; “the meanings and definitions achieved in this phase,” she says, “are foundational to the total Walcott.”
But Abandoning Dead Metaphors approaches the poems from a particular angle, as its title (borrowed from “The Castaway”) suggests. Ismond’s concern is with the evolution of Walcott’s “pervasive” use of metaphor, which “subserves the purpose of exploring and defining his native world.” Any reader of Walcott’s poems must be immediately struck by the intensity of his metaphoric imagination, in which he is matched by few living poets anywhere. Recall one of his lines or one of his phrases, and chances are it has lodged in the memory because of some vivid, astonishing flash of metaphor revealing a previously unsuspected resonance in the everyday world. (I myself think of the opening lines of my favourite Walcott poem, “The Season of Phantasmal Peace”: “Then all the nations of birds lifted together / the huge net of the shadows of this earth”.)
And Walcott himself, by allusion and in direct statement, has repeatedly insisted on the importance of metaphoric technique to his role as a poet, particularly in its Adamic manifestation as the necessity to name things in a fresh, new world. As he wrote in 1965, in “The Figure of Crusoe”, “given a virgin world, a paradise, any sound, any act of naming something … is not really prose, but poetry … but metaphor.” This act is what he elsewhere calls “poetry’s surprise, / in a green world, one without metaphors.”
But Ismond’s ultimate argument is that this effort to invent new names, new terms of reference, a new language, is Walcott’s response to recognising his “divided self,” his dual allegiances to the historical experience of the Caribbean, on one side, and the tradition of European literature and art on the other. As she defines it, “Walcott’s anticolonial revolutionary route turns primarily on a counter-discourse with the … coloniser’s tradition, against which he pursues an alternative, liberating order of values and meanings, generated from the different time and place of his Caribbean, New World ground…. The revolutionary effort, then, is routed through a metaphorical enterprise.”
Her analysis follows the chronological sequence of the poems, through which she observes a poetic sensibility budding, blossoming, ripening. She begins with Walcott’s first published work, the privately printed 25 Poems and Epitaph for the Young. Writing twenty years later, Walcott remembered this time as an apprenticeship in the workshop of “borrowed metaphors”:
Remember years must pass before he saw an orchestra,In particular, Epitaph for the Young — Walcott’s self-portrait of the artist as a young man — demonstrates his youthful reliance on borrowed models, a borrowed language; Ismond describes this poem in twelve cantos as “a panoply of voices and forms from the masters of the Western literary tradition…. the young Walcott assumes a heritage in that tradition, and aspires to fellowship in and admission to its pieties.” Yet even as he followed the inevitable course of the novice, learning his craft by imitation, he nursed the desire to find the necessary language to sing “the uncouth features” of his “prone island,” as he wrote in one of his earliest poems.
a train, a theatre, the spark-coloured leaves
of autumn whirling from a rail line,
that, as for the seasons,
the works he read described their passage with
processional arrogance; then pardon, life,
if he saw autumn in a rusted leaf.
The sun came through our skins,“Aiming to recover the immanence of the … mythic in the ordinary,” Ismond writes, Walcott “is reaching for an alternative order of values.” She perceives a complex metaphysics of metaphor in the poet’s quest to give new names to his new world, a profound argument with the Western tradition and its modes of thought and comprehension. “Its substantive, countering mission … is the search for an alternative, ‘another light’ of humanist intelligence.”
and we beheld, at last,
the exact sudden definition
of our shadow.
Under our grinding heel
the island burst to a crushed
odour of hogplums, acrid, exuding
a memory stronger than madeleines