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The Prodigal, by Derek Walcott (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, ISBN 0-374-23743-3)

Review by Nicholas Laughlin

First published in Caribbean Beat, March/April 2005

“What language do you speak in your own country?” This is the kind of question often asked of West Indians abroad, and it haunts Derek Walcott halfway through his new book-length poem, The Prodigal. It is, of course, a question every poet must answer, regardless of history or geography; but, in Walcott’s case, the facts of history and geography make the imperative to answer particularly urgent. He came of age “in a green world, one without metaphors,” as he once put it — in a West Indies yet to be named by its native poets, still to enter the permanence of literature. In one of his earliest poems he swore “to praise lovelong, the living and the brown dead” of his home island, St Lucia, and for decades he has faithfully pursued his vocation to name and praise the islands of the Antilles and their people.

But Walcott has long struggled with a sense of dividedness that comes of being the hybrid son of a hybrid culture, neither African nor European yet also both. It comes of mastering the forms of English literature so as to write about a place and a people far outside that literature’s traditions. And it comes also of the tension between being in the islands he loves and being in the wider world, “exiled” by the practical necessities of being a professional poet.

These two themes — making the world “real” through the power of poetry, and the anxiety of dividedness — drive the narrative of The Prodigal. Walcott tells the story of his fortunate travels through Europe above all, but also the United States, Mexico, South America, a journey foreshadowed by his reading: “We read, we travel, we become.” And he tells the story of his homecoming, once again, to St Lucia. He wonders whether his exile from the Caribbean is a betrayal, and wonders whether his poetry compounds that treachery or redeems it.

The Prodigal’s first two sections are a catalogue of days and nights among the landmarks of Geneva, Florence, Rome, and Milan. Descriptions of streets and hotels give way to memories, snatches of conversation with strangers, musings about the relations between the history of a place and its art. There are times when the traveller’s enthusiasm seems to flag, his attention to wander, and so may the reader’s. “How many more cathedral spires?” Walcott asks.  A line from “Islands”, forty years ago, drifts into the mind: “Merely to name them is the prose / Of diarists”. But, too alert and scrupulous a poet ever to write mere prose, Walcott animates his long travelogue with the memory of and longing for his “unimportantly beautiful” island over the sea, to which he returns in the final section.

Here The Prodigal truly soars, revealing again an intensity of faith in words and images equalled by few living poets. With as little obvious effort as breathing, he launches extraordinary flights of metaphor, sustaining them aloft longer than syntax should allow. Apparently at his command, the world translates itself into words then back again.

The dialect of the scrub in the dry season
withers the flow of English. Things burn for days . . .
Every noun is a stump with its roots showing,
and the creole language rushes like weeds
until the entire island is overrun,
then the rain begins to come in paragraphs
and hazes this page, hazes the grey of islets . . .

Attentive readers of Walcott will notice that The Prodigal — which he describes as his last book, “an old man’s book” — is often in dialogue with his earlier work, especially with his great mid-career long poem, Another Life. Here, attempting to describe and understand the birth of his vocation in 1940s St Lucia, he semi-mythologises himself as “a prodigy of the wrong age and colour,” torn between his love for his native landscape and the knowledge that only by leaving can he truly fulfil his promise. “Prodigy” and “prodigal” are etymologically unrelated, but so masterful a punster as Walcott must have been drawn to the phonetic link, and the suggestion that the prodigal’s self-imposed exile is rooted in the prodigy’s inescapable talent.

Ultimately, Another Life traces an arc of departure; The Prodigal completes the shape with its arc of return. In the earlier work, Walcott notes with the nearly desperate ambition of the young “how the vise / of horizon tightens / the throat”. The Prodigal in turn ends with another horizon, but this time a “line of light that shines from the other shore.” That other shore is the freedom of the imagination that every artist struggles to achieve. That line is the light of poetry itself. It is also the light of love. For Walcott, they are the same.