Saturday, October 30, 2004

Finally, a review of Derek Walcott's new book, The Prodigal--by Mary Jo Salter in the NY Times.

The Prodigal seems an almost inevitable title for the verse memoir that Derek Walcott, addressing himself within it, calls "your last book." One hopes that this prediction of finality, by the Caribbean poet who so clearly deserved his Nobel Prize in 1992, is wrong. And yet the biblical theme of the prodigal son has been waiting as steadily as home--the end of the story--for this world-wanderer, born in 1930, who now openly feels his age....

It's easy to name themes in The Prodigal: the familiar struggle, for this Caribbean- and North American-based poet of African, English and Dutch ancestry, of synthesizing his fractured identity; the deracinating effects of world fame; the regrets and bodily changes of old age; the war of importance between History (often capitalized) and natural history; the loss of vividly remembered loved ones; the more unsettling loss of memory.

Yet to summarize the poem's action is almost impossible. In abrupt scene changes from Boston to Zermatt to Milan to Genoa to Guadalajara (the list goes on); in fleeting references by first name to people most readers won't recognize; in numbered sections that could have been divided otherwise without much consequence; in odd shifts of verb tense--The Prodigal disappoints by not finding a home in a few controlling poetic techniques, apart from a wobbly blank verse. The story's structural and syntactic lapses loom larger where the music is lacking.

Walcott seems to know that his poem is something of a hash, and approaches this suspicion with a mixture of defiance ("I could give facts and dates, but to what use?") and apology....

But longtime followers of Walcott will also recognize here, in seaweed he likens to sentences, and crows to commas, his distinctive world as one that is represented metaphorically as text. Although Walcott himself sometimes wearies of his tendency to think "pebbles are parables," The Prodigal is also shot through with images that grasp the world with a wonderful directness: "And the twig-brown lizard scuttles up its branch / like fingers on the struts of a guitar."

(His "last book"? Naipaul has been saying the same thing about Magic Seeds. Are we ready for the possibility of no more Walcott & no more Naipaul?)

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