For well over 50 years Derek Walcott has dazzled us with some great poems. This nobel laureate has a huge and impressive body of work to his name. Perhaps Walcott's magnum opus is his epic poem Omeros. The Prodigal is the third volume of poems since Omeros so on coming to read it I wondered what now, what are the themes and issues that Walcott will address?
The Pordigal is a book length poem rendered in blank verse style. Although not on the same scale as Omeros, this particular style puts the Prodigal into the category of an epic poem.
The narrative is well structured and carefully wrought. The nameless narrator wanders across continents: America, the Caribbean and Europe. The Narrator travels by land, sea and air and describes, at times movingly, his observations. He, or perhaps she, admires and depicts a sense of belonging to the terrain observed.
As usual Walcott's language is not always easy to penetrate. The text is highly intertextual. For example, there are references to Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ice Maiden" or a particular one I liked was Rembrandt's "Syndics of the Drapers' Guild". What I find engaging and interesting about Walcott's references to these European texts is that, as an African-caribbean, he appears to, quite rightly, claim them as part of his heritage.
I am a fan of Walcott because as an African-caribbean myself his poem resonate profoundly with me. For instance the following lines: "When we were boys coming home form the beach/ ... The body would be singing with salt, the sunlight hummed through the skin/ and a fierce thirst made ice water a gasping benediction ..., takes me back to long sunny days on the beach and then at the end of the the day I would trek home just gasping for a long cool drink.
If as it has been suggested, The Prodigal is Walcott's last book, then it is not too surprising that he revisits some old themes that run through earlier poems - for example, the Caribbean landscape, Walcott's mixed heritage, and history. Like a coda these themes are rendered as a tender and loving tribute to the Caribbean. For example, "From the salt brightness of my balcony/ I look across to the abandoned fort;/ no history left, just natuaral history,/ as a cloud's shawdow subtilizes thought." For those familiar with Caribbean history this meditation is quite moving.
For me, ultimately, The Prodigal is a meditation upon the things that shape lives. It dwells upon history, geography and culture. The poem celebrates the fact that as social beings we are ultimately made of a rich and hybrid culture.
Walcott has been hailed as the greatest living poet writing in English. I thing that the breath and depth of his work justifies that claim.
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I bought this book several years ago and read it over the course of three months. There is nothing difficult, obscure or showy about Walcott's poetry, and every line shows him in complete command of his material. This is what an outstanding naturally-gifted poet looks like, having honed his craft over the course of a lifetime.
My only reservation is that, being an epic poem, it's quite hard to dip back into - as I'd love to. As so often in poetry, the schema the author imposes on his or her work isn't a deductive outgrowth of the text itself, rather it's fairly arbitrary (though I admit, far from completely so). I would have liked to see The Prodigal split up a bit more into stanzas under subtitles. Yes, I know that sounds a little trite, but I'm willing to bet posterity comes to think the same way (though it'll never admit it).
Even with my one reservation however - how can I not give this book five stars? How could anyone?