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

Advertisements

White Egrets by Derek Walcott

By Rob Packer

It doesn’t happen too often that I pull out a book of poetry in Waterloo Station to read a few lines to a friend. She and I were each heading back home from a rather literary lunch; I opened the book (almost) at random and read:

If all these words were different-coloured pebbles,
with little pools that the blue heron might drink from,
a mosaic sheeted and glazed by the vanishing bubbles
of the shallows, and bannered waves marching to the sea’s drum,
if they were more than black marks on white paper,
and sounds that our eyes make upon their meeting,
they would all be yours …

We then had to break off and run for our trains, but these lines remain some of my favourite of White Egrets, the 2010 collection by St Lucian poet, Derek Walcott (1930–). They’re also characteristic of a collection that creates potent image after potent image in the reader’s mind and weaves together motifs that echo, develop and interact through the collection: it feels as much a poetic sequence as a collection.

The “bannered waves” of the sea are a constant presence throughout White Egrets. The sea creates comparisons of “huge trees tossing at the edge of the lawn like a heaving sea without crests” and is described in countless ways, whether “a bosoming wave unbuttons her white bodice” or the reader being invited to:

Watch how spray will burst
like a cat scrambling up the side of a wall,
gripping, sliding, surrendering; how, at first,
its claws hook then slip with a quickening fall
to the lace-rocked foam.

A white egret (Source: JJ Harrison, Wikimedia Commons)

The sea also recalls the Caribbean’s history: it stretches off to Africa and Europe (Sicily and Andalucía feature particularly strongly). It clearly references the triangular slave trade, which resulted in the syncretic Caribbean culture and I found Walcott’s linking of Syracuse in Sicily with St Lucia fascinating. As well as both being islands, where “the sea was the same except for its history”, they share the same patron saint.

The “blue heron” of the extract I read in Waterloo also makes a visual allusion to the book’s most fluid motif: the white egrets of the title (egrets are a type of heron and look very similar). They are both beauty and terror; they are immortality, death, anonymity, human transience and nature’s permanence; they are rhymed visually with sails, with regrets, with poems, letters, clouds and sea waves breaking.

Every time the white egret reappears, it adds a new and contradictory shade of meaning. Right now, I imagine them as metaphors for the creative process: the muse’s fleeting ideas that arrive—and disappear—without warning. In an hour, I might imagine them as Walcott’s drive “to paint and write well in what could be my last year”. Tomorrow, I may think that they defy interpretation completely. But it’s these connections and contradictions between the book’s imagery and motifs that are really what add so much to its richness and make it such a joy to read and re-read.

Derek Walcott, White Egrets, Faber & Faber 2010

%d bloggers like this: