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from The Estranging Sea -- Derek Walcott

(Poem #1592) from The Estranging Sea

 You want to know why?
 Go down to the shacks then,
 like shattered staves
 bound in old wire
 at the hour when
 the sun's wrist bleeds in
 the basin of the sea,
 and you will sense it,

 or follow the path
 of the caked piglet through
 the sea-village's midden,
 past the repeated
 detonations of spray,
 where the death rattle
 gargles in the shale,
 and the crab,
 like a letter, slides
 into its crevice,
 and you may understand this,

 smell the late, ineradicable reek
 of stale rags like rivers
 at daybreak, or the dark corner
 of the salt-caked shop where the cod
 barrel smells of old women
 and you can start then,

 to know how the vise
 of horizon tightens
 the throat, when the first sulphur star
 catches the hum
 of insects round the gas lantern
 like flies round a sore.
 No more? Then hang round the lobby
 of the one cinema too early

 in the hour between two illusions
 where you startle at the chuckle
 of water under the shallop
 of the old schooner basin,
 or else it is still under all
 the frighteningly formal
 marches of banana groves,
 the smell from the armpits of cocoa

 from the dead, open mouths
 of husked nuts
 on the long beach at twilight,
 old mouths filled with water,
 or else with no more to say.


 So you have ceased to ask yourself,
 nor do these things ask you,
 for the bush too is an answer
 without a question,
 as the sea is a question, chafing,
 impatient for answers,
 and we are the same.
 They do not ask us, master,
 do you accept this?
 A nature reduced to the service
 of praising or humbling men,
 there is a yes without a question,
 there is assent founded on ignorance,
 in the mangroves plunged to the wrist, repeating
 the mangroves plunging to the wrist,
 there are spaces
 wider than conscience.

 Yet, when I continue to see
 the young deaths of others,
 even of lean old men, perpetually young,
 when the alphabet I learnt as a child
 will not keep its order,
 see the young wife, self-slain
 like scentful clove in the earth,
 a skin the colour of cinnamon,
 there is something which balances,
 I see him bent under the weight of the morning,
 against its shafts,
 devout, angelical,
 the easel rifling his shoulder,
 the master of Gregorias and myself,
 I see him standing over the bleached roofs
 of the salt-streaked villages,
 each steeple pricked
 by its own wooden star.

 I who dressed too early for the funeral of this life,
 who saw them all, as pilgrims of the night.
-- Derek Walcott
(From Another Life; part IV, The Estranging Sea)

Nobody writes about the sea as well as Walcott. As we struggle to come to
terms with the horror of the tsunami, as we come face to face with these
"spaces wider than conscience" and find the basic order of things that we
depend on suddenly, horifically overturned ("when the alphabet I learnt as a
child will not keep its order"), his is the voice I find myself turning to
for comfort.

One reason I love this poem is because the landscape Walcott so skillfully
paints here is at once vividly familiar and strangely hostile- the poem both
captures the sights and smells of a small coastal fishing village and turns
it into something darker, more sinister. It is, I feel, the right landscape
for the hour.

More importantly, however, I think the poem echoes the sense of confused
loss that we have all felt over the last few weeks. The poem starts
aggressively, but the question raised there is never quite answered, and
Walcott is barely able to maintain this balance between a view of the world
as haphazard and contrary and the glimpse he has of a tired yet still
dominant figure behind all this sorrow. It would be easy (and somewhat
trite) to offer words of understanding here, but Walcott gives us something
deeper: the struggle to understand.


P.S. Another poem that is sadly apt is Marianne Moore's the Grave [Poem #986]

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