Derek Walcott - White Egrets (4 stars)

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Derek Walcott - White Egrets

(Faber)

Derek Walcott’s White Egrets was years in the writing, its publication coming after last year’s Poetrygate which resulted in his reputation smeared through allegations of sexual harassment. If there was one way in which Walcott could get the last laugh, this powerfully intense collection is it. Journeying through time and place, linked by motif – birds ruffle the pages throughout, ‘the sea’s repetition’ envelops – and separated by sequence, Walcott, now 80, mines the ageing process continually, directly and most evocatively via nature. Though phlegm and diabetes rear distastefully up, ‘on the shore of the mind seaweed accumulates’ and beauty is ‘hunched like a crumpled flower’.

Populated by elegies, White Egrets imparts a sense of keening for times and people past, but certainly doesn’t lack the political bite for which Walcott is known: the poem sequence in reaction to Obama’s presidency is here, as are melancholy jabs at the ‘new makers/ of our history … prophets of a policy/ that will make the island a mall’, and the Caribbean’s complex colonial legacy. A monument to home, honed carefully from the rough-hewn bricks of ‘rice bags’, ‘codfish’ and ‘mangrove marsh’, Walcott’s linguistic dexterity begs to be imbibed aloud.

Present and absolutely correct are the pert little flashes of internal rhyme and half-rhyme (‘wriggling’ ‘niggling’ ‘jigging’); the well-placed alliteration (‘years yaw like yachts’) and the lapping of a wave-like cadence. The whole collection hangs sublimely and will, like ‘coming to the same sea by another road’, reward revisiting.

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