Our Elizabeth, Walcott Mine
Our Elizabeth, Walcott Mine
At two recent celebrations of the work of Derek Walcott and Elizabeth Bishop, I was surprised, even a little embarrassed, by the public display of affection for
our poets. I use “our” here advisedly. She is ours, it was said. He speaks to me. I shouldn’t have been so stuffy. At a celebration, expressions of affection are common. Even during the most formal of campus poetry readings, a young admirer will preface his elaborate question to the poet with heartfelt praise of her work. But at these events, there was an urge to claim kinship, that “Bishop lived next door,” and “Walcott is an islander like me.” These were not so much testimonies to a poet’s universality as to her being radically local—rooted, as the adverb suggests, in the land of her readers, all the more so when the poets in question speak eloquently of uprootedness and disorientation. Despite their having become associated with official verse culture inside academia, Bishop and Walcott were, for these readers, beloved poets-in-residence of borderlands and out-of-the-way spaces.
I attended the Walcott event on a rainy November evening in Victoria, BC, the site of an annual conference for humanities scholars. Vancouver Island is a far cry from the Caribbean that provides the landscape and language of Walcott’s poetry, and the city was a strange space in which to find him. Warmly nostalgic for the British Empire, downtown Victoria wears its epaulettes and ostrich feathers unabashedly for the sake of tourists and a sense of Commonwealth self. That, at least, is the admittedly limited impression I got as one of those tourists, staying in the conference headquarters at the city’s signature hotel, The Empress. I met no one at the conference who didn’t attempt to register her self-consciousness about the setting as soon as she introduced herself, making a clever remark about all the Union Jacks, the photos of royalty on elephants (Indian and African), the tea rooms. But there we were, hypocrite readers in a luxury hotel, pampered and comfortable in our discomfort. In the long shadow of the Raj, we were spending liberally despite the recession, declaiming radicalism in the Bengal Lounge, then laughing ironically at ourselves.
Walcott was not in Victoria for the conference but for the Pacific Festival of the Book. He read at the opening of a co-op that could have been The Empress’ doppelgänger, her poor lost twin. It had tea but not high tea. It had no peacocks or tusks, no Persian rugs, no floral wallpaper—for that matter, it had no defining aesthetic. Its mission, unlike the Empire’s, was ambiguous. Judging from the proprietor’s enthusiastic welcoming remarks, the co-op was a local visual arts gallery, fair-trade tea and coffee house, healthy lifestyles seminar space, Bohemian clothing consignment shop and community center. That is to say, it was a Utopian enterprise founded by a poet, not a businessman or politician. For all its confusion, it rivaled, maybe even surpassed, The Empress in its sincerity, something on the order of Linus’ pumpkin patch or Donna Reed’s family room.
Walcott’s audience was as eclectic as the co-op, and several people spoke before the poet began his reading. Over the clatter of flatware and the burbling of coffeemakers, one particularly impassioned fan declared the kinship of all islanders, Vancouver Island being somehow a far northern cousin to Walcott’s St. Lucia. In front of me, an elderly woman asked her husband, “Is that the poet?”, her whisper the kind that needs no amplification to resonate around a room. A young man, soaked from the rain, dripped by the doorway. He was evidently indifferent to his own discomfort, his eyes glued on Walcott, his hands trembling with excitement rather than the chill. In the midst of it all, Walcott sat serenely, his thick fingers flipping the pages of his Selected Poems.
Before that night, the portrait of Walcott imprinted on my mind was from the cover of a collection of critical essays. The photo dates from the late 1960s. In a dashiki and Afro, Walcott is the pensive, unflinching young poet of “A Far Cry From Africa” and “Codicil”—“How can I turn from Africa and live?” and “To change your language, you must change your life.” The Walcott of Victoria was a stout octogenarian in a woolen cardigan, the poetry establishment’s version of the elder statesman. He moved slowly, but there was an awareness in his heavy-browed eyes each time he peeked over his spectacles at the noisy gathering. He seemed at ease in the curiosity shop, unembarrassed, as if even this was strangely familiar. Embarrassment in this case would have been ungracious, and Walcott’s wisdom manifested in a quiet acceptance of his hosts’ good intentions.
I was eager to hear Walcott read, not least because for years now my response to his work has differed from my students’. Many of my students are smitten with Walcott at first blush. Even if they’re puzzled by his poetry, they identify with its preoccupations: the search for a stable place in a fragmented world, for instance, and the need to draw upon many languages and traditions in the creation of a contemporary aesthetic. When they choose to write about him, they usually have to rein in their affections and check their tendency to see his struggles as unmediated reflections upon their own.
In contrast, I was no fan of Walcott after my first experiences of his work; my reasons never seemed adequate given all that he has accomplished, but they stuck nonetheless. I disliked his tendency to over-indulge in wordplay, allusion, and pronominal ambiguity, to overload a metaphor such that a stanza becomes a room bulging with bric-a-brac—worthy of the Empress in fact. The final stanza of an early poem, “The Flock,” is an example. In a northern clime, the speaker has seen a flock of ducks flying south towards the temperate regions with which he identifies. His mind, the tropics, the Arctic, and the flock all undergo alchemical transmutations that recall, stylistically, poets such as Henry Vaughan and Thomas Traherne. In the end, “The Flock” turns out to be a poem about vocation, particularly Walcott’s personal struggle to define himself as an African-Caribbean writer who embraces an English literary tradition:
Till its annihilation may the mind
until that equinox when the clear eye
clouds, like a mirror, without contradiction,
greet the black wings that cross it as a blessing
like the high, whirring flock that flew across
the cold sky of this page when I began
this journey by the wintry flare of dawn,
flying by instinct to their secret places,
both for their need and for my sense of season.
Every major image in the poem, and at least one new one, gets twisted back into the tight weave of this final stanza. Walcott is less an alchemist, as I just suggested, than a blacksmith: the material of the weave is metal, and here I would say his work is overwrought, a Gothic rood screen.
Writing about Walcott, one ends up following his lead and searching for metaphor, although he is fundamentally a narrative poet. Plot, character, and dialogue are a refining fire for his lyricism, such that his best lyrical moments manifest in his verse stories. Perhaps that explains his choice of “The Schooner Flight” at the Victoria reading. The narrator, Shabine, who is a proxy for the poet, tells a sailor’s tale: a disillusioned misfit and rugged individualist goes to sea to find himself, and in the midst of a terrible storm, he recognizes the spiritual strength his home has instilled in him. The story itself is generic: upon leaving home, one discovers its significance and longs to return. But the voice of Walcott’s narrator is a sonorous, poetical patois in loose blank verse lines that revitalize the familiar tale. Damning the storm, Shabine declares, “If we’s to drong, we go drong,” the patois bringing out the consonance latent in “we’re going to drown.” Shabine’s ear—Walcott’s ear—is matched by his eye. Describing the casuarinas, he writes, “You see them on the low hills of Barbados/ bracing like windbreaks, needled for hurricanes,/ tracking, like mists, the cirrus of torn sails.” Metaphor and allusion, as in “The Flock,” are still essential, but Walcott has complete command of them, aided by the constraints of character. Like his creator, Shabine is a poet of Dutch, English, and African ancestry, concerned about his vocation and its purpose in the struggles of the Caribbean. But Shabine is no more (or less) Walcott than Prufrock is Eliot or Satan is Milton, which is to say that there is enough difference that the persona insures against nostalgia for an idealized lost history and liberates the poet to think outside the confines of the self as lyric subject. It was Walcott’s most theatrical reading in Victoria. The bass brogue was his, but the expressive flare was Shabine’s.
The contemporary poetry reading is, in the main, a decidedly non-theatrical event. Most of Walcott’s performance was understated—a quiet, careful reading in which the text is meant to speak for itself, just in the poet’s voice. That part is crucial: it’s why we attend those typically sedate stagings, why we place a higher value on Walcott reading Walcott than, for instance, Laurence Fishburne or Anthony Hopkins reading Walcott. And it helps explain why the Victoria audience’s warmest response followed the poet’s reading of “Sea Canes,” a simple, elegiac lyric of personal experience. In it, the poet has traveled half his life’s journey, far enough along that, as he bluntly puts it in the opening line, “Half my friends are dead.” Such directness is unusual in Walcott but characteristic of this elegy. Although he cannot resist one esoteric image, “the seraph lances of my faith,” the metaphor of the sea canes develops organically, much like the daffodils of the Wordsworth lyric that seems to provide an unconscious model. What Walcott would have flash upon his inward eye, however, is not an idealized image. Rather, he claims that the sound and motion of the blowing sea canes brings back his lost friends “with faults and all, not nobler, just there.” It’s an admirable sentiment destined to elicit sighs and nods and approving applause. I don’t mean to imply that Walcott read it for that reason, or that our response wasn’t genuine. On the contrary: we hoped to hear the poet speak, and he spoke, seemingly to us.
That was how the rain-soaked young man summed it up in the Q&A session that followed “Sea Canes”: “I feel that you spoke directly to me.” The audience of the lyric enters into a shared experience with the poet. Lyric is not narrative, but we listeners tend to render it so by filling out lyric space with our stories. In the co-op with Walcott, affection could not only be felt but also expressed. Walcott is not a sentimental poet, which does not preclude his readers from developing powerful attachments, especially in the presence of the man himself. I am aware of how Romantic my language is here, how reactionary it must seem when my tribe of literary and cultural critics has rendered such concepts as “presence” and “author” suspect, even silly. But outside the lively debates of literature conferences or avant-garde poetry klatsches, the humanity of the poet and the language of his work are not easily disentangled. A reader wants to draw close to her favorite authors, to hear and see them, to get their signatures. “Sentimental” was not always pejorative, and the word’s etymological complexity, implicating not just the emotions but also the intellect and physical sensation, should remind us that to be touched by the poet and to be stimulated intellectually by her work derive from related desires. We have many means now to hear a writer’s voice—Internet archives such as PennSound, Ubuweb, and the Poetry Foundation, as well as vaults of audio disc and tape recordings. From blogs and tweets, we have ready access to a poet’s quotidian thoughts and ruminations on culture and politics. Her lectures and forums come to our desktops or cellphones through live feeds. The metaphor is suggestive, for our appetite is great and the table bountiful.
Hunger, touch, the sensation of hearing a unique voice—the truth is that at the Walcott reading, my polite applause belied my excitement about being near a poet whose work I’d studied for years, no matter my vexed relationship to him. The affective power of literature can break down the critic’s guard. That is sometimes wanted, as I’m suggesting. However, when we draw too close to the poem and poet, or when we think that we have done so, we see neither of them whole. Nostalgia lurked near the door of the co-op that evening, and occasionally inserted a cloven hoof. Fantasies of common origins and universal languages, of the poet as a man speaking to men [sic], whitewash difference. Our certainty that Walcott spoke of us, as well as to us, threatened to make him inaudible.
This is where the independence of the text becomes critical. Neither poet nor reader can control it, and it will resist being reduced to our satisfaction. It will trouble the waters. In “The Schooner Flight,” Shabine’s language is tainted by colonialism. Bitter about his own marginalization, he has internalized white prejudice toward blacks. His attitude toward women is troglodytic. He is rather too fond of saying “nigger” and “bitch.” When he spat out those words that night in Victoria, people squirmed, snickered uncomfortably, or sat stony-faced, suppressing reaction. Walcott’s reading of “The Schooner Flight” was a performance in various voices—his own, Shabine’s, other characters’, and the poem’s. That last voice, the poem’s, eludes both character and poet. It exceeds the poet’s expectations and creates the discomfiture and confusion that precede criticism. I asked nothing about “The Schooner Flight” during the Q&A, although questions were winding into a knot in my chest. I imagine that others felt this way but, like me, deferred discussion to the walk home, or tomorrow’s class, or an essay.
Of islands, Muriel Rukeyser famously swears, “For God’s sake they’re connected underneath.” Dive down far enough, and you’ll find the wreckage of imperialism in Victoria’s history as in Castries’. On either shore, Walcott’s poetry matters because its sea grapes and whelks seem native. Walcott has objected to being classified a Caribbean poet, not because he disowns his region but because he doesn’t believe his work to be limited by it. This is a common complaint among writers, usually in response to critics who, for good reason, argue that paying attention to ethnicity and gender has diversified what counts as literature. Once our eyes and ears have been opened, however, identity categories fade behind the art: its inventiveness and humanity. I do not mean to suggest that literature transcends history and politics. Rather, at its best, it transforms them by causing us to think creatively about such abstractions as “Caribbean” and “colonial,” or any in the array of categories that critics and publishers and bookstores now use to organize literature. A student of mine once declared that he only read work by women of color. There are conditions in which such a limitation would be constructive. Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks could have benefited from a year’s commitment to such a regime, as would anyone convinced either that color and gender do not matter in writing, or that “women of color” speak with a unified voice. Sooner or later, the best poetry will break free of our restrictions upon it and recombine unpredictably. “Sea Canes” will transplant and thrive along the Pacific rim of Canada.
A few months after the Victoria conference and Walcott reading, my family and I were making our way down the Trans-Canada Highway on the opposite coast, in Nova Scotia. Our destination was Lockeport and a week with my wife’s parents and sister, but we happened to drive by Great Village during the weekend of the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary celebration, the culmination of a year’s worth of readings, concerts, memorials, and writing contests. I have described the setting of the Walcott event as “sincere.” Imagine the earnestness of Bishop admirers who had made a pilgrimage to this remote crossroads in rural Nova Scotia. It was matched only by the determination of the hosts to claim Bishop, arguably the most itinerant 20th-century poet, as a Canadian maritimer. Bishop lived roughly three years in Great Village with her maternal grandparents, and her poetry and letters evidence just how formative those years were. But she is no more Nova Scotian than she is Floridian, Bostonian, or Brazilian. Her work is international in a way best described by critic Homi Bhabha, who claims that the assimilated prefix “inter,” signifying “between,” “carries the burden of the memory of culture.” Bishop does not belong everywhere, but neither does she belong to a single geographical or national space.
The maritimers’ bid for Bishop was familiarly Canadian. Surely no modern nation state is more ambivalent about national identity: on the one hand proud of itself as a “mosaic” of immigrant cultures rather than a “melting pot,” on the other anxious that “What is Canadian?” is contingent, debatable and interesting only to (some) Canadians. Canadians scoff at American exceptionalism, but their most common conversation starter is, “Did you know that she/he/it (Margaret Atwood/Lorne Greene/the Space Shuttle Arm or the victor of the War of 1812) is Canadian?” If Canadians despair of being always in the shadows of the U.S. empire, maritimers bristle when they’re compared to the supposedly cosmopolitan provinces of Quebec and Ontario. Nova Scotia, “Canada’s Ocean Playground,” has traditionally been cast as its provincial hinterland, less exotic than the far flung Newfies, but too far from Toronto to generate high culture. It’s a land of coal, blueberries, and cod cheeks (at least before the sea was fished out). It’s produced a few hockey players (but what province hasn’t?), fiddlers, Anne Murray, and a prime minister of some renown. Now, at the centenary of Bishop’s birth, Nova Scotia reproduced “our Elizabeth,” headlining websites and brochures with a quip from one of her letters: “I am 3/4th Canadian, and 1/4th New Englander—I had ancestors on both sides of the Revolutionary War.” At the Centenary Festival, “Canadian” stood for Nova Scotian, the whole for its essential part.
Although taking Bishop for Nova Scotia was a familiar, essentially benign act of small-scale Canadian imperialism, the festival’s leaders could, in at least one respect, truly claim kinship with the poet. Their knowledge of her life and work was intricate and impassioned, similar to the way one knows a beloved relative or the landscape of home. For several months before our trip, I had read the Centenary blog. There were detailed accounts of the lives of Bishop’s Great Village relatives, poetic responses to her poetry, fresh interpretations of musical settings of her work, deeply personal professions of debt to her voice, which had seemed to speak for a range of people. Bishop was like the map she famously describes in her early poem by that name, the inviting representation of a place we want to know, to study, to be acquainted with intimately. Bishop’s map combines absolute precision and scope for imaginative flight. “Are they assigned,” she asks, “or can the countries pick their colors?” Our urge to know Bishop so thoroughly would disturb her, for she shied away from public inquiry into her private affairs. She was given to self-doubt and skeptical of the self-exploration that was characteristic of the poetry of her contemporaries. Her reserve and humility, which we hear in recordings of her readings and witness even in her most critical correspondence with Robert Lowell, have helped make her a popular artist in a way that she is unlikely to have anticipated. She has moved into that unenviable class of poets whom people want to take care of: the forlorn Keats, reclusive Dickinson, mad John Clare . . . . geniuses all, whose reputations blossomed posthumously, and whose poetry gets entangled in our curiosity about their illness and secrecy and disappointment.
Across the road from the home of Bishop’s Grandmother Bulmer is St. James United Church, an elegant, steepled, white clapboard building, iconic image of the North Atlantic village center. During Bishop’s preschool years in Great Village, a Presbyterian congregation worshiped there. It wasn’t Bishop’s church. Recall that when she confronts a seal in “At the Fishhouses,” Bishop realizes that they are both “believers in total immersion.” Grace Bulmer was Baptist, and Bishop loved the hymns, though it is a Lutheran chestnut she names in the poem, and it’s a Presbyterian minister and church steeple that we find in her “In the Village.” Bishop was to give up her faith, but she never silenced her guilty conscience: a stern Protestant, frowning on her lack of self-discipline and her tendency to anesthetize her sorrows and disappointments with alcohol. In her modernization of a Christian parable, “The Prodigal,” Bishop identifies with the self-exiled prodigal son, an alcoholic who resists the shame and humility of penitence, even as he begins to “come to himself.” That is the King James Version’s language, which Bishop refashions as “shuddering insights, beyond his control” brought on by the flight of bats over his head in the evening. In Jesus’ parable, the prodigal returns to his father’s house. But Bishop alters this. “You can’t go home again” is a commonplace that Bishop’s life and work painfully tested. Displacement, the permanence of it, looms against the horizon like the church steeple over the returning unbeliever. Bishop leaves her prodigal in a state of perpetual doubt, despite his decision to return to his father. “But it took him a long time,” she concludes, “finally to make his mind up to go home.” His mind is made up, but does he go? Home may not be there—will not, in fact, in the form that he recalls. Returning requires compromise and a will to settle, even after kneeling for forgiveness. To rephrase another Bishop line, might it be better to stay here and think of home?
On the exterior of St. James is a plaque in memory of Bishop, with the line “Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?” from her late dramatic monologue “Crusoe in England.” The homily at St. James on the Sunday of the Bishop Centenary was a quiet, thoughtful meditation on the universal need of a home. Raised Southern Baptist, I am prone to distraction in all but the most distressingly censorious sermons, so my mind kept wandering away to Crusoe’s island. Bishop’s version is a “cloud dump,” redolent of “goat and guano.” It has “one kind of everything,” but this merely contributes to its monotony. Nonetheless the island becomes Crusoe’s home, a land where he manages to carve a “home-made flute” and (unlike Defoe’s otherwise master craftsman) make “home-brew.” It’s in a drunken revelry that Crusoe croons the lines inscribed on St. James. “Awful, fizzy, stinging stuff,” home brew is generally made palatable by the pride of the brewer rather than the quality of the beverage. The imperfections of a homemade product are always offset by the charm of its being homemade. The central irony of Bishop’s poem is that the castaway discovers upon returning to England that the unnamed Caribbean island made him. It was his true home, and it now has the insubstantial quality of a map image and fading memory. The objects most closely identified with his island—flute, knife, parasol—have become museum pieces, emptied of significance, or rather, their significance has been rendered historical and merely factual. At the same time, Crusoe’s birth home, the English island from which he originated, is just “another island.” Whatever its historical and global significance, England matters to the aging Crusoe only in relation to the other islands he has claimed a portion of. They are connected underneath, literally, but the meaningful connections are made closer to the surface by the art of memory. Bishop’s revision of the Crusoe myth proposes that home and homeland are imaginary places, partial fabrications of the expatriate, the exile, the prodigal, and simply anyone who moved away. Great Village is significant to Bishop because she left it early and returned only sporadically. The most fulfilling visits were carried out in verse.
Salman Rushdie argues that the expatriate writer creates “imaginary homelands,” reconstructions from shards of memory and fictions, intended and unintended. The fictiveness and fragmentation are what make the imaginary homeland instructive, not only to the writer but also to the reader who has remained in the land of her birth. Bishop’s readers never, in my experience, dwell on the inaccuracies of her Great Village or Key West or Ouro Preto. We don’t ask a poet to be accurate, just truthful, and I suspect that the organizers and patrons of the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Festival stood in awe of the truth and beauty of her Nova Scotias of the mind. Her Nova Scotia was theirs, just as she was theirs and Walcott had belonged to the Canadian west-coast islanders.
In a classroom, where most people’s experience of poetry begins and ends, we generally leave affection at the door. When orienting ourselves to a poet’s work, our coordinates are period and nation, gender and ethnicity, school or group, predominant style or poetics. That is to say, we draw on the discipline to situate the poet and her work in a known landscape at some distance from ourselves. We sketch a map for reading, and as we explore the work, we recalculate and fill in the details. That’s as it should be, arguably, since critical analysis of one kind or another is the primary mode and fundamental agenda of the institutional space, literature class. But in my experience, for all students, including the occasional would-be scholars, literature remains a dark, forbidding forest, a no-man’s-land, until they encounter a writer who astonishes them and makes them want to follow. “I love that one,” she says. “It’s as if he knew me,” he claims. She is ours. He speaks to me. Whether such affection can be sustained after the critical faculties have been exercised is doubtful, but it is what connects all readers of literature underneath.