White Egrets by Derek Walcott

White-EgretsKate Kellaway in The Observer:

I read the new collection looking for Walcott as a recognisable, distinctive human being and observed him disappear repeatedly behind his own majestic lines. He would often launch himself into the first person, then retreat into the mercy of the third, as if the exposure of speaking as himself were too great.

It is easy to guess why this might be. For in this collection, he is writing his own valediction (a risky undertaking). He wonders whether, at the age of 80, these poems might be his last. He explains that if he felt his gift had “withered”, he would “abandon poetry like a woman because you love it/ and would not see her hurt, least of all by me….” It is an uncomfortable expression of a painful thought but he pulls himself together to conclude:

“be grateful that you wrote well in this place,/ let the torn poems sail from you like a flock/of white egrets in a long last sigh of relief “.

Egrets, in this collection, are multitaskers. Walcott even refers to himself as an “egret-haired Viejo”. And there is no need to shy away from the observation that egret is only one letter away from regret – Walcott does not resist the rhyme. His particular regret is about unrequited love – the keen humiliation of the old man who falls for a younger woman:

“It is the spell/ of ordinary, unrequited love. Watch these egrets/stalk the lawn in a dishevelled troop, white banners/ forlornly trailing their flags; they are the bleached regrets/of an old man’s memoirs, their unwritten stanzas./ Pages gusting like wings on the lawn, wide open secrets.”

Walcott is never fully available for comment; his heart is a million miles from his sleeve. Here, the egrets are again on duty to rescue him from himself and, for a second time, he likens them to poems. Actual and written landscapes frequently become hybrids in Walcott’s work – a stale device upon which he over-relies. Wriggling insects are “like nouns”, sunflowers are “poems we recite to ourselves”, barges “pass in stanzas along canals”. The breakers Walcott loves so much are trusted collaborators. They roll and smash their way into poem after poem. They shore up the verse. And birds become gracefully blameless alter egos.