In White Egrets, Derek Walcott's 14th collection of poems, we find the narrator in mainly reflective mood. Less evident in this collection is the Latin and foreign phrases that can be found scattered in previous collections. However, that does not necessarily make the collection less opaque. In places the language is dense, richly figurative and very inter-textual. All this commands a careful attentive read.
Where the last collection, The Prodigal, was one long epic poem, in White Egrets the collection of poems are much shorter individual poems that stands in their own right and could be divided into two categories: there are the titled poems that address specific issues and there are the untitled poems that give the impression of a mature narrator randomly reflecting upon the past. The narrator laments a past that is going, going, gone as for example in Acacia Tree:
"You use to be able to drive (though I don't) across
the wide, pool-sheeted pasture below the house
to the hot, empty beach and park in the starved shade
of the acacias that print those tiny yellow flowers."
This is what links the poems together, the reflection upon the past. The aged narrator, one assumes it is Walcott, stares his mortality in the face and summons up his past. At this stage in life it is time to make amends so there are many dedications to be found in the collection for example to August Wilson, Oliver Jackman, Lorna Goodison and even Barack Obama gets a poem dedicated to him. Another major feature of the collection is that whilst we are not sure from where the narrator is speaking his mind nonetheless wanders across the globe: London, New York, Amsterdam, Italy, Spain and of course the Caribbean. All this gives the collection a very personal feeling - personal to Walcott.
Perhaps it is the personal nature of many of the poems that makes meaning difficult to glean form some of them. However, the language is a delight to read and savour, adorned with great figures of speech as in the extract from Sicilian Suite:
"My memory's nostril prick at these odours,
of burnt concrete, or tar, the smell of words
drying like kelp in a rock-pool to a door's
hinges opening like a heart. Gulls rise
like screeching gossips past the hotel windows
as a bosoming wave unbuttons her white bodice."
Walcott's command of language is second to none. He never ceases to surprise me with fresh metaphors: "and barges pass in stanzas along canals", or "Light older than wine and a cloud like a tablecloth spread for lunch under the leaves."
As for content, many of the poems are simply well observed description of places and events. There are recurring motifs of seascapes, egrets, acacias trees and places visited. One key theme that emerges from the collection is how history is bound up with the present for ever shaping who we are. Walcott celebrates all that makes him and the people of the Caribbean what they are: from the inter-connections of the Islands to their colonial heritage.
Most of the poems are rendered in various patterns of rhyming couplets which see the opening poem acting as a preface that places the narrator in a certain place doing things that is common to him and fellow patriots. For example, playing chess with pieces that reminds the narrator of the Terra-cotta warriors.
In the title poem, White Egrets, the narrator conjures up the landscape of Santa Cruz with its wild life, and changing ecology. The behaviour of the Egret is well captured and described. The tone is solemn as human life is compared to the activity of the Egret and changes in the landscape. He states: "With the leisure of a leaf falling in the forest/pale yellow spinning against green - my ending".
Whilst not the best collection of poems by Walcott that I have read, it nonetheless seems a worthy winner of the TS Elliot prize, if only for the collection's exuberant use of language and Walcott's mastery of his art.