(Poem #1592) from The Estranging Sea
1 Why? 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. 2 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.
(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. Aseem P.S. Another poem that is sadly apt is Marianne Moore's the Grave [Poem #986]