A Trinidadian Friendship
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.