Attention to Detail: Reading with Distractions

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


6 Responses to Attention to Detail: Reading with Distractions

  1. johnfield1 says:

    It’s a beautifully designed book, isn’t it? I’ll wager that it was designed for Faber by a company called Pentagram (I think they do most of their books). My brother, who drew my avatar and the portait of me on my About page, has had the pleasure of drawing for them:
    White Egrets won the TS Eliot award a couple of years ago, I think, didn’t it? I missed it at the time but, on the strength of this, I ought to check Derek Walcott out.
    Thanks for posting.

    • Rob Packer says:

      It really is beautiful! I’ve never seen—or maybe never noticed—such an echo between the book’s binding and its cover. About ten years ago, when I was more impressed by flashier imprints, I remember thinking Faber’s minimalist designs boring and unappealing; these days I find them beautiful (and a bit on the expensive side).
      Walcott is an incredible poet and he also paints, which comes through in a lot of his visually evocative poetry, like this extract. White Egrets did win the TS Eliot prize and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.
      I love your brother’s drawings by the way.

  2. Marissa says:

    I really love Walcott, and was so happy when I visited the Caribbean to see St Lucia. The island is so lush and vibrant, and made his descriptions feel all the more real. I think my favourite poem of his is ‘Islands’, which should be in your selection, and also ‘Tarpon.’

    • Rob Packer says:

      Reading Walcott, it’s hard not to end up wanting to go to St Lucia! Thanks for the tips on those poems: it’s always good to have recommendations when you’re dealing with a selected (or collected) works. I’d read ‘Islands’ before, but not ‘Tarpon’. They’re both beautiful, and I love the lines “But islands can only exist / If we have loved in them” from ‘Islands’.

      • Marissa says:

        You’re very welcome! That’s one of his great lines, I think. His Selected Poems are certainly a little intimidating–there are so many really excellent pieces that every time I return to it, I seem to find a new favourite. I remember actually seeing a Tarpon on my trip, although it only looked like a blur in the water. I’d love to know if the trick with the sail-boat in the scales is true.
        I’d like to hear what other poems stood out for you, when you have more time to peruse it.

      • Rob Packer says:

        I find all poetry behemoths a bit on the intimidating side, but lovely to dip into every now and again. I’ll let you know what I find in Walcott’s Selected (the ultimate aim is, of course, to read the whole of “Omeros”).
        Fantastic that you saw a tarpon on your trip! It’s so magical for something in a poem to come to life in that way.

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