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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

First 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,
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.
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.

In her examination of the works of the later 50s, collected in In a Green Night, and those of the early 60s, in The Castaway and The Gulf, Ismond shows how Walcott’s growing poetic confidence was accompanied by an increasingly fervent exploration of personal and cultural identity, and the corresponding development of a new figurative language. “Borrowed metaphors” were reworked, reconceived, finally replaced; when he adopted the Crusoe metaphor in poems like “The Castaway”, “Crusoe’s Journal”, and “Crusoe’s Island”, for instance, it was as much his as it was Defoe’s: “a virtual indigenisation.” And by the time he wrote The Gulf’s “Guyana” sequence, Walcott was fully engaged in “a fresh experiment to relate humanly to the natural world”, the product of which is “a fund of indigenous metaphors” summarising a new understanding of this world.

But it is in Another Life that Ismond sees the mature fulfilment of Walcott’s search for the new language required to express the truth of his lived experience: “it marks a culmination of his thought and ideas as a Caribbean poet, and the arrival, at this midpoint of his career, at a consciousness which remains seminal to his total achievement.” Retelling the story of his youth, the birth of his artistic vocation, and early love, Walcott probes the mysterious boundary between art and life, a boundary marked by those metaphors through which he transports the facts of biography into poetic myth. Near the poem’s middle, he records a transfiguring moment in which he finally sets aside the “heirlooms” of the books he has read, the images and ideals of elsewhere which have nourished his imagination:
The sun came through our skins,
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
“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.”

It may by now be clear that Abandoning Dead Metaphors is not a book for casual readers; its habitat is not the armchair or the bedside table. It is the product of prolonged, painstaking research; “close reading” does not adequately describe the intensity of Ismond’s method, or the intimacy of her knowledge of Walcott’s oeuvre. From the substance of every line and stanza she teases delicate threads of possible meaning, weaving these into a larger pattern of understanding. Her patience is extraordinary; her book demands to be read with corresponding deliberation and attentiveness, to be read with pencil and notebook, one hand pressed to forehead.

Scholars and students — and the occasional amateur, driven by curiosity — will be rewarded here not only by the careful unfolding of Ismond’s main thesis, but by the incidental illuminations of her insight. Reading chapter 19 of Another Life, she notes how Walcott “perfects the art of … ‘cussing’”. Later, pausing over a key scene of epiphany in the third book of the same poem (“A Simple Flame”, Walcott’s elegy to first love), she points to parallels in Keats and Yeats, then unexpectedly kindles her own spark of poetry, declaring that “it is because of love that we care about death.”

At such moments, Ismond’s strong love for these poems and her delight in their music show their bright colours behind the scholar’s professional façade; it must be a very jaded reader indeed who will not be prompted to reach the Collected Poems from the bookshelf. For Abandoning Dead Metaphors achieves what has often been said is the true purpose of literary criticism: to send the reader back to the text, to the poems, to make us thirsty for their insubstitutable refreshment. And we return to them with a keener taste, a mental palate made more sensitive by the influence of Ismond’s discernment and her enthusiasm. +