Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott
The Bounty
Farrar Straus Giroux

DEREK WALCOTT'S BEEN at poetry for some three decades now, making him one of a diminishing generation still reeling from the recent deaths of Joseph Brodsky, James Merrill, and, further afield, Allen Ginsberg. At 67, the native West Indian writer still reads with the hearty ripeness that put his first books on the map. Always a man of letters, sponsored as much by Shakespeare and the Bible as by the lush landscapes of the Caribbean, Walcott hasn't been distracted by the poetic whims and fads of the past quarter century. It's a blessing for his readers: Open The Bounty and you'll dive immediately into familiar Walcott territory, packed with bougainvillaea and mangoes, tidal pools, tropical sun, and a rich scope that mills it all through the senses.

This is solid stuff, a feast composed with the rare confidence of a Nobel Prize-winning author (1992), MacArthur recipient (1981), and member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In fact, Walcott's decorated like a war hero, and bears the stature of a writer thoroughly at home in his style. His first collection since Omeros in 1990, The Bounty opens with a seven-part series to Walcott's mother, set in the family's home turf of St. Lucia. She's a figure beyond the reach of grief, embodied again in the verdant, colonized terrain of the island, reciting stories and incantations in one of the most haunting elegies in the English language. This title poem sets the formal stage for what follows: 30-some poems that circle the globe from Boston (where Walcott now teaches) to Ireland to Granada. Each fits its surprising excess onto a single page--fat chunks of text that often read like prose with their long lines and sentences and anti-anorexic language.

The best poem here is "Italian Eclogues," also a serial elegy--this time in praise to Brodsky, who was a longtime literary companion of Walcott's and his co-author, along with Seamus Heaney, on the 1996 essay collection Homage to Robert Frost. Set near Rome, fogged in by the spirits of Virgil, Horatio, and Ovid, Walcott takes the occasion to pay tribute to an absence so full of sorrow it stains the landscape. The light hurts like rain. The campanile bells turn deranged and the trees close their doors. It's as if the mourning scene consumes all the mastery of language and time Walcott's name has come to represent. "I am going down to the shallow edge to begin again,/Joseph, with a first line, with an old net, the same expedition./I will study the opening horizon, the scansion's strokes of the rain,/to dissolve in a fiction greater than our lives, the sea, the sun."

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