[This book of poetry is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Derek Walcott

2010, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

Filed Under: Poetry

Aging, tranquility, the death of friends and the cyclical nature of time are a few of the themes touched upon in Derek Walcott’s White Egrets. He finds beauty in the flight of birds, the crumbling of buildings, in broken dialects, and always in the sea.

Water and the sea feature in almost all of the 54 poems, as Walcott’s verses traverse the world–from Saint Lucia in the Caribbean, to Spain’s Mediterranean and Italy’s Adriatic, from the Congo river, to the canals of Amsterdam. Rain and the sea, rivers, marshes, wells, waterfalls–water is the central motif, expressing the flow of time, the seasons, the rain cycle, and the recurrent struggles of man, as generation after generation loves and dies.

Here are elegies for friends, ruminations on lost relationships with women, more of Walcott’s ever present post-colonial musings–including a poem dedicated to Barack Obama–and an all-pervasive sense of peace. This peace rises from the views of birds and sunsets, it is there when Walcott realizes his age and the pains in his body, it is even there in the death of his friends. “Your death is like our friendship beginning over,” he writes in a poem titled only “7”.

Most of the poems are untitled, marked by nothing other than their number in the sequence. A few do have titles, such as the longest poem, “Sicilian Suite”, a break-up poem which spans eight pages in eleven sections, and the title poem, which turns the return of orange-billed egrets into an image of passing time and death. Those bills then become Walcott’s pen, picking through the dirt for sustenance.

Innumerable species of birds soar and stalk through these pages–gulls, hawks, herons, and flock after flock of egrets. The birds become symbols for beauty, art, and poetry itself. Walcott writes, “if it’s true that my gift has withered… then there is nothing left to do but abandon poetry like a woman because you would not see her hurt.” This is the sense of loss and sadness mixed with acceptance and tranquility communicated in these poems.  And in turn, the infinite is exposed and expressed, the infinite repetition of the same tragedies and the same hopes and the same beauties. “What weight, what mass of time is borne… what ignorance of the heaving wreaths, as if this image could expiate centuries: the horse, the shining girl, the weed-fretted sands.”

Similar Reads: Omeros (Walcott), A Yes-or-No-Answer (Shore), Questions of Travel (Bishop)