Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Derek Walcott: THE PRODIGAL

When as a young man Derek Walcott, already a poet and artist, first traveled from his home of St. Lucia in the Caribbean, and he engaged in what would become an extended journey on and off over five decades of wandering through the great cities of Western civilization, he knew he was seeking to vastly expand the scope of his personal experiences or to possess a wider array of cultural understanding. “It is only afterwards that these things are ours,” he explains in The Prodigal. Consequently, he must have believed his writing would be enriched by such exposure to the variety of international cultural institutions, historic locations, and peoples he encountered along the way. “We read, we travel, we become.”

However, it probably could not have been possible for him to foresee the concern, perhaps even guilt (“my craft’s irony was in betrayal”), he eventually might develop over the long stretches of separation from his beloved native island, as well as away from its inhabitants, for which he was has maintained great affection and to whom he has continued to display devotion in his work over the decades. “Christ, over fifty years. Half a century!” he exclaims as he approaches the closing of the book-length poem and a young waitress triggers his memory so that he envisions the youthful image of his “first love— / the jutting lower lip, its provocative pout, / the streaks of blond hair.”

Ninety pages into the poem, the speaker acknowledges what readers have witnessed often throughout the book: “there was only one subject—Time.” For the poet, time has moved too quickly. It has robbed him of his youth and taken a toll on his health. It has affected his emotional state along with his corporeal condition. It has led to the death of his brother and the arrival of continual consciousness about the inevitable end of his own life. The poet even proposes in the final pages: “In what will be your last book make each place / as if it had just been made, already old, / but new again from naming it.”

Further, Walcott hints that he worries soon the passage of time will hinder his ability to produce fine poetry: “Be happy: you’re writing from the privilege / of all your wits about you in your old age.” Art—in this case, poetry—presents an opportunity to halt time. Within its lines, the poem stills moments and preserves the lives of people or places important to the poet. In fact, Walcott’s fixation on the concept of time can be demonstrated with an earlier passage from the poem, where the narrator mentions the word “time” over and over again: “And time is measuring my grandchildren’s cries / and time outpaces the sepia water / of the racing creek, time takes its leisure, cunning . . ..”

Even when he has been physically apart from the land of his childhood, in volume after volume Derek Walcott has revisited the familiar setting and depicted its individuals. Frequently, the center of this poet’s spiritual map has been easy to detect (“of all the cities of the world, this is your centre”); however, his geographical and spiritual distance from that spot sometimes has also caused consternation. In The Prodigal, as the title suggests, Walcott recalls a number of his restless adventures, mostly in the United States and Europe, and then he returns once again to the beaches and seascapes where he began a lifelong exploration of external or internal topographies, each filled with characteristic features for which his work has become famous: “Not a new coast, but home.”

Walcott’s fame came as the result of the repeated production of magnificent poetry, especially as witnessed in ambitious and lengthy projects—most notably Omeros (1990), his epic poem paralleling the Odyssey but with contemporary Caribbean characters and an island atmosphere. For his literary achievements, Derek Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1992. As Walcott notes in The Prodigal, acclaim, with its rewards and responsibilities, also created greater separation from his homeland: “approbation had made me an exile.”

Near the end of this poem extending more than 100 pages, the speaker reveals an attitude toward the renown he has earned throughout his career: “Gradually it hardens, the death-mask of Fame.” Indeed, an awareness of one’s mortality and a desire to mark another’s death provide motives for the meditative language within this work. Repeatedly, Walcott recounts ways in which he feels his body’s aging: “the detached tooth from a lower denture / the thick fog I cannot pierce without my glasses / the shot of pain from a kidney / these piercings of acute mortality.”

Often, Walcott associates memories of certain times or cities with the many women he has known (“women who contained their cities”), and he expresses anxiety over his inability to attract beautiful women as he once had. In a particularly moving passage, he also recalls the violent death of one of those lovely women, a military figure he had met: “A shot rang out and the green Vespa skidded / off the curb into a ditch below a fence / of rusty cactus and the beautiful soldier lay / on the dry grass verge staring at the blue sky / with its puffs of clouds like echoes of an ambush.” Finally, returning to the site of his youth, the narrator is even reminded of his initial love: “how she walked / with her sunburnt hands against the sea-almonds, / to a remembered cove, where she stood on the small dock— / that was when I thought we were immortal.”

As readers discover deep within the book, Walcott’s sense of his own mortality arises from the recent death of his twin brother, Roddy, notification of which he writes about in the shockingly plain language of a matter-of-fact message: “I read this. / March 11. 8:35 a.m. Guadalajara. Saturday. / Roddy. Cremated today.” However, the poet’s powers of observation and perception quickly transition to more descriptive sentences: “The streets and trees of Mexico covered with ash. / Your soul, my twin, keeps fluttering in my head, / a hummingbird, bewildered by the rafters, / barred by a pane that shows a lucent heaven.”

After this revelation halfway through the volume, the poem’s structure seems surer, and the emotional intensity of the poetry immediately increases; consequently, so does the psychological tension. As seems to be the case for the persona in this poem, readers discover greater purpose and passion when the speaker nears the familiar settings and lush scenery of his beginnings, even while he draws toward the end of his life.

Indeed, many of the first fifty pages in this poem involve chronicles of the speaker’s travels: New York, Boston, Italy, Germany, the Alps, etc. The memoirist style of poetry, reporting the poet’s movements and cataloging events, brings to my mind Charles Wright’s European journal poems; however, one swiftly wants to recognize additional connections to examples by other earlier modern poets, perhaps all the way back to Wordsworth.

Still, what plot exists owes itself to the parable from which the book’s title is drawn. The poet, stunned by his brother’s passing and encouraged by his own aging, elects to exit the world he has adopted for decades so that he might revisit the site where he and his twin had spent delightful days together: “So has it come to this, to have to choose?” In the long span of time away from his beloved island with its ocean horizon, Walcott frequently has sought joy and sanctuary in language (“nouns that have stayed / to keep me company in my old age”), especially in his poetry (“The line is my horizon. / I cannot be happier than this”), or in other forms of art (“Museums are the refuge of the prodigal”). In the process, his poems also have provided considerable pleasure or comfort for others.

Derek Walcott’s poetry has always been an ambitious art—with admirable works usually unsuitable as anthology pieces—that requires of readers great patience and long undivided deliberation, but which ultimately rewards readers with its lyricism and inventive language investigating important themes. The rich texture in the lines delights and surprises with its similes or metaphors. Rarely does a poet employ these techniques more than Walcott. He even may be accused on occasion of over-layering his imagery too much, burdening lines with more similes and metaphors than they can adequately handle, exhibiting a cleverness that causes unnecessary complexity and confounds rather than illuminates, or that needlessly diverts attention toward its presentation of elaborate description and away from the cogent content. Indeed, he humorously speaks to his readers’ expectations for extravagant illustration and remarks at one point in the poem just before embarking on further embellishment: “And now, you think: he is going to describe it.”

Nevertheless, The Prodigal contains a powerful and compelling examination into the thoughts of an aged man assessing his emotional condition and into the psychological reflections of a premier poet contemplating his mortality: “Old man coming through the glass, who are you? / I am you. Learn to acknowledge me, / the cottony white hair, the heron-shanks, / and, when you and your reflection bend, / the leaf-green eyes under the dented forehead, / do you think Time makes exceptions, do you think / Death mutters, ‘Maybe I’ll skip this one’? / the same silent consequence that crept across / your brother perilously sleeping, and all the others / whose silence is no different from your brother’s.”

Confronted by the death of his twin, the poet reconciles his self-image to his image in the glass: “the train window where you sat / through which you saw the ghost that is now your face.” He returns home to address his own eventual demise, and in turn is inspired to write this work with epic and elegiac tendencies. In the book’s final lines, as the speaker sails once more the seas off the shore of his island accompanied by “Angels and dolphins, the second, first,” celebrating through memory the life of his brother (“my twin, my dolphin”), he now knows that he also approaches the close of his own time, and the last line of poetry transforms into a glorious lifeline indicating the path forward, illuminating the way to the opposite side: “that line of light that shines from the other shore.”

Walcott, Derek. The Prodigal. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.


RK said...

Great blog. I found it while casting around for reviews of Walcott and I am impressed by your devotion to writing poetry reviews, a neglected genre in my part of the world (South Africa. Keep it up.

Lindsay Brock said...

Thanks for your post. I am reading The Prodigal for a class I am taking, and your insights and opinions were interesting and helpful to my own understanding of Walcott's work.