Steven Matthews

A Trinida­dian Friend­ship

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Morn­ing, Paramin, Derek Wal­cott and Peter Doig, Faber & Faber, Novem­ber 2016, 116 pp, £22.00 (hard­back)

First Brod­sky; then, un­ex­pect­edly, Heaney; now, on 17 March 2017, Derek Wal­cott. Wal­cott’s death brings a clos­ing down of a time when poetry in English was thrillingly opened to new in­to­na­tions, vo­cab­u­lar­ies, landscapes, sea­sons, nar­ra­tives, his­to­ries. Only the Aus­tralian Les Mur­ray re­mains of a gen­er­a­tion of po­ets whose am­bi­tion and anger en­abled them to range, and to rel­ish, both the par­tic­u­lars of their na­tive lo­cale – its flora and fauna, its trau­matic past – and the lit­er­a­tures and his­to­ries of Europe. Their ma­ture con­fi­dence brought strik­ing in­flec­tions and new mea­sures of po­etic pace, spo­ken from an en­ti­tle­ment founded upon the po­ten­tial, from within the canon, to il­lu­mi­nate any per­sis­tently har­rowed lo­cal place. Derek Wal­cott’s poems and dra­mas spoke back to the ‘rich’ lan­guage of ‘im­pe­rial in­ti­ma­cies’ from ‘the or­ange words of a hill­side in drought.’

Al­ways, close­ness, dis­tance. Yet liv­ing colour, even in un­promis­ing times. Wal­cott stood apart from his peers in the rich­ness and boun­ti­ful­ness of his writ­ing from the out­set. The early ‘Ori­gins’ be­gins ‘The flow­er­ing breaker det­o­nates its surf. / White bees hiss in the co­ral skull.’ It was pre­sum­ably this trans­for­ma­tive com­paction of words from dif­fer­ent reg­is­ters which caught the then Lon­don Mag­a­zine Ed­i­tor’s ear. Alan Ross both pub­lished Wal­cott’s poems, and rec­om­mended his work to Jonathan Cape, so en­sur­ing his ca­reer. In the lat­ter phase of that ca­reer, Wal­cott ac­quired mas­sive for­mal and tech­ni­cal reach. From Mid­sum­mer (1984), through to the last book, Morn­ing, Paramin re­viewed here, he cre­ated book­length poems with set verse shapes and com­plex rhyme schemes. Each of these books shows a now per­haps un­re­peat­able imag­i­na­tive and mu­si­cal in­ven­tion, un­equalled in English poetry since the nine­teenth cen­tury. At res­o­nant mo­ments of loss such as at Wal­cott’s death, to re­call his own wry re­flec­tion from ‘Sea Grapes,’ ‘The clas­sics can con­sole. But not enough.’

Morn­ing, Paramin is a lovely, haunted book. The St. Lu­cian Wal­cott has cre­ated a series of poems which speak back to se­lected paint­ings, beau­ti­fully re­pro­duced here, by the Trinidad-based Doig. The paint­ings be­come oc­ca­sions that elicit from the poet late re­flec­tions on sound, on loss, and on the bless­ings of sim­plic­ity but also of complexity, in life as in art.

Wal­cott’s forms here are of­ten more-or-less rhymed son­nets, as though the more-or-less framed block of the text some­how stands in for the pic­ture shapes on the op­po­site page, cre­ated by the re­pro­duc­tions of Doig’s work. In­deed, Win­dow Pane is the ti­tle of a Doig paint­ing shown here, a white wall or side of a build­ing, in front of which stands a pud­dle re­flect­ing a thicket of brown branches or tree trunks; the re­flec­tive pud­dle seems to take up the ma­jor­ity of the pic­ture sur­face. Wal­cott’s poem in re­sponse takes the same ti­tle as the paint­ing, and seems to gather many of the themes of his writ­ing across the book:

…all that lies ahead is the blank page of win­ter no mat­ter how well I write. A sheet of stiff snow be­comes a page for draw­ing for Peter Doig and a ski slope his fic­tion, a white­ness whose width de­mands ex­plor­ing…

From the per­spec­tive of old age adopted by these poems’ speaker, the re­la­tion be­tween the ex­hil­a­ra­tions to be ven­tured down the ski slopes of art, and the blank­ness ahead, re­curs as anx­ious theme. The ‘real’ world is here seen as a ‘con­tra­dic­tion’ to art; the real world is where this poem’s speaker will die, as have many of the friends lamented in other parts of the book. In a deft play of words char­ac­ter­is­tic of the meta­phys­i­cal ma­noeu­vres here, ‘our prison is the prism’, a con­strain­ing con­ven­tion in light and po­etic form; ‘complexity’ in these cir­cum­stances is an im­pos­si­ble (and in­vis­i­ble) ‘white on white’.

There is both a courage and a wit to many of these poems, which, as it were, mea­sure their own strate­gies against those of the al­ter ego Peter

Doig, whose Chris­tian and sur­name, in­trigu­ingly, ap­pear quite of­ten within the poems them­selves, as it does here in ‘ Win­dow Pane’. A contrast is es­tab­lished, be­tween the for­mal­ity which un­der­writes the book’s di­a­logue, and the lament for those dear friends who are gone. In ‘Cave Boat Bird Paint­ing’, we are taken to the cot­tage near Wal­cott’s house where ‘Arthur Miller and, in­deli­bly, Sea­mus’ had stayed; later in the poem, how­ever, and in con­tra­dic­tion to the ref­er­ence to the painter who has in­spired the poem, even the sur­name dis­tin­guish­ing ‘Arthur’ has dis­ap­peared:

But all the birds did the same thing; set­tle, fly and ride, pre­sent­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate pro­file to the bird-watcher; then some, sur­pris­ingly, like Arthur and Sea­mus, died. Peter Doig lives now in an Eden of wings…

‘Doig’, or equally fre­quently ‘Peter Doig’, seems al­most, through the vi­brancy of the work re­pro­duced in the book, to bur­geon in de­fault of these lost lit­er­ary in­ter­locu­tors. Every­thing is on show, on dis­play, show­ing its best pro­file – in a nudge-nudge mo­ment in this same poem, Heaney’s Chris­tian name is rhymed with ‘fa­mous’. But this, in its turn, li­cences the num­ber of re­flec­tions, win­dows, pond- and pud­dle-life, and the typ­i­cally-Wal­cot­tian shifts in per­spec­tive which en­er­gise the poetry (‘How far from palm and breaker was the view / from our apart­ment floor in Ed­mon­ton’).

What emerges from such dou­blings and blank­ings is a poetry here of real dig­nity; both a late re­hearsal of some favoured strains by Wal­cott, but also an ab­sorp­tion of his own ex­pe­ri­ence, as a painter as well as a poet, into a new strange­ness. The self-ref­er­ence here, in­deed, is al­ways del­i­cate and lovely, as in ‘Ski Jacket’, where ‘win­dows and win­dow frames’ emerge from the snow-scene ‘sharp and clear / and packed with heat, a refuge for our souls.’ Such posed sen­ti­ment, the poem ac­knowl­edges as it re­turns upon it­self, is ‘Ba­nal…square and ba­nal’ –yet ‘that sim­plic­ity is where home is, / a leaf-flecked boul­der, a leaf-choked canal.’ Such ‘fleck­ing’ and over­fill­ing is of course, more Hop­kin­sian com­paction than ‘homely’ di­rect­ness. Else­where, think­ing of a ‘Fig­ure in a Moun­tain Land­scape’, we hear about its painter that:

He made a cer­e­mony of sim­plic­ity and still­ness as his mir­rored craft keeps still his woods with the last words of fall­ing snow.

This is light and dar­ing again, a sense that the poet’s and the painter’s craft both holds a mir­ror up to the world, but also is mir­rored by and in the world. If these poems are in­deed amongst Wal­cott’s ‘last words’, then they are al­ready trans­lated, as­sumed, into other pos­si­bil­i­ties; the ‘cer­e­mony’ of po­etic form, as of paint­ing, ‘keeps still’ in ev­ery avail­able res­o­nance of that ‘sim­ple’ phrase.

To that ex­tent, the poems here ‘take off’ from the paint­ings, of­ten in oblique ways. The re­sponse to Doig’s Un­ti­tled (Jun­gle Paint­ing), 2007, in which an al­most ag­gres­sively male fig­ure stands amongst mas­sive lush plant growth, is the poem ‘Paramin’, a lament for a dead loved woman, who brings to the poem that el­e­ment which, inevitably, poetry brings to im­agery–sound:

She loved to say it and I loved to hear it, ‘Paramin’…when I join her it will be Paramin for both us and the chil­dren…

The poems are full of noises and voices, bird song, com­mon say­ings, curses, loud brass band music. An eery Van Gogh-like fig­ure, dead or sleep­ing, is the sub­ject of Doig’s Por­trait (Un­der Wa­ter), 2007. ‘Ab­strac­tion’, the poem on the fac­ing page, con­tends that ‘We imag­ine that we can hear what cer­tain painters / heard as they worked’ (as with the ‘cer­e­mony’ men­tioned above, in this ‘cer­tain’ there’s a tinc­ture of late Yeats in this late Wal­cott). To an ex­tent, then, the ‘ab­strac­tion’ which the poems present with re­gard to the paint­ings is pre­cisely that they cap­ture, and emit, ‘sounds that sur­round the work of Peter Doig’ as the last line of this poem has it; the lo­cale, and its ut­ter­ance. After his pre­vi­ous col­lec­tion, White Egrets, it felt as though Wal­cott had maybe reached a limit, a pos­ture of grand­stand­ing and lamen­ta­tional mas­ter­ful­ness. Out of his en­counter with the works of Doig, how­ever, there emerges the same mas­tery, but a new deft­ness and hu­mil­ity whuch, along with its ele­giac note, are dif­fer­ent, mov­ing and sus­tain­ing.

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