July 29, 2012 6 Comments
By Rob Packer
I made a stop at The South Kensington Bookshop (lots of good deals) coming back from central London last week. I picked up a hardback, half-price copy of Derek Walcott’s Selected Poems, then squeezed myself into a crowded tube towards Richmond. As I struggled against falling over, I took out the book and flicked through a few pages at random, before coming across ‘The Light of the World’ from his 1987 collection The Arkansas Testament.
I am, probably like most people, not a good reader standing on the tube: people push past to get in and out; you stagger forwards as the train brakes and backwards as it accelerates; the station announcements intrude. With the precision, rhythm and language of poetry, it’s even worse and the smallest disturbance can stop you up or set your eyes reading words with a brain too distracted to listen.
As the District Line train swayed its way through Earl’s Court and Hammersmith, the poem somehow took me from the doorway where I was wedged to another vehicle at sundown, this time a minibus back from market day on Walcott’s native St Lucia:
Marley was rocking on the transport’s stereo
and the beauty was humming the choruses quietly.
I could see where the lights on the planes of her cheek
streaked and defined them; if this were a portrait
you’d leave the highlights for last, these lights
silkened her black skin; I’d have put in an earring,
something simple, in good gold, for contrast, but she
wore no jewelry. I imagined a powerful and sweet
odour coming from her, as from a still panther,
and the head was nothing else but heraldic.
When she looked at me, then away from me politely
because any staring at strangers is impolite,
it was like a statue, like a black Delacroix’s
Liberty Leading the People, the gently bulging
whites of her eyes, the carved ebony mouth,
the heft of the torso solid, and a woman’s,
but gradually even that was going in the dusk,
except the line of her profile, and the highlit cheek,
and I thought, O Beauty, you are the light of the world!
The poem continues for another eight stanzas and between the stops and starts of the train, it felt like it took the whole journey to read, but it was also so gripping that I barely noticed all the tube’s other distractions. It’s some feat of writing.
When I got back home, I noticed this attention to detail. Look at the colours:
My thoughts on Derek Walcott’s most recent collection, White Egrets, here.
Derek Walcott, Selected Poems, Faber & Faber 2007