Derek Walcott's poetry is often dismissed by certain poets and critics as being too "mainstream," as relying on outmoded and trite techniques and subject matter. Walcott is also accused of being complacent, or not radical enough, on the topic of empire. What this critique misses in Walcott's work is how thoroughly he investigates the interstices of the Black Atlantic consciousness. I read Walcott for some of the same reasons I read poets such as Amiri Baraka, Elizabeth Alexander, Wilson Harris, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Sandra Cisneros, N. Scott Momaday, Eileen Tabios and Thomas Sayers Ellis: because of how they negotiate the inevitable conjunction of language, race and the canon.
I think his recent book, The Prodigal (FSG, 2004), is among his weakest, partly because it suffers from flat lines, many of them weighed down by ineffective metaphors or trite imagery. And yet, Walcott's evocation of a distinctly Caribbean and Latin American condition remains masterful. Walcott's verse often depends on a manipulation of a distinct existential crisis as the central component of a poem. When one is black or brown in the United States or Europe, existence cannot be taken for granted. The field of literature in the US, for instance, is inherently averse to the survival of black or brown writers as anything beyond mere adornment.
This is why colleagues of mine at BU could refer to Walcott's technical proficiency as unsound. They said these types of things with a straight face. I recall one incident in our workshop when someone wasted more than an hour of our time arguing with Walcott over his interpretation of Auden's poem on Freud. Rather than disagree with Walcott on Auden's merits, the student devoted his argument to countering each of Walcott's points in a manner that would have been considered out of place were the professor white. But I don't intend to discuss race right now, or the systemic exclusion of writers of color in the field of literature.
What I am getting at is the notion that Walcott's verse is, in a sense, translated. His constant reference to natural landscapes as correlatives to the act of writing and reading a translated language, reflects his conception of poetry as a form of translation. The moments I find useful in Walcott's work are the ones that expose an uncomfortable and angry silence, a naming that is necessarily incomplete and scarred. Walcott is never fully at ease with English, which is why so much of his work retains an effective violence against the form and intent of this language.
His longer poems ("Omeros," "The Schooner Flight," "Another Life," "The Bounty") succeed by virtue of their use of repetition. To a degree that silence, or perhaps static, begins to shroud the narrative and distort its imagery. It is that distortion I recognize as my own, a language based on suffering and beauty. An acceptance of no future beyond the word and her houses, including the ones we are prohibited from entering. At times, Walcott identifies this unease with English clearly.
"The dialect of the scrub in the dry season
withers the flow of English. Things burn for days
without translation, with the heat
of the scorched pastures and their skeletal cows.
Every noun is a stump with its roots showing,
and the creole language rushes like weeds
until the entire island is overrun,
then the rain begins to come in paragraphs
and hazes this page, hazes the grey of islets,
the grey of eyes, the rain-storm's wild-haired beauty."
("The Prodigal," 11, I)
This unease, this forced cohabitation, this love affair with translation is of course a product of historical, political and economic impositions. One does not choose translation, it is simply there, a reminder of history. What I gain from reading Walcott is an understanding of how translation can be utilized as a method of composition, how the body and mind are already experts at manipulating its demands.
The new issue of Letras Libres (free, but registration required) has a feature on Tijuana which includes brilliant texts by Heriberto Yépez and Rafa Saavedra. Again, the issue of translation is suffered and reinvented in these two writers, with marvelous results. While I disagree with Yépez regarding Bhabha's notion of hybridity being too "general and depoliticized," I understand the critique he is making of Tijuana's faux (or pop) hybridity. It is a hybridity marketed by US imperialism in an effort to make Tijuana invisible yet accessible.
Yépez is an essayist whose prose sparkles and confounds with the same intensity of certain poetry. In that sense, his writing reminds me of Wilson Harris, since both use distortion as a starting point for their sentences. Both of them also write a prose that is poetic in its conception of the sentence as capable of carrying a prodigious amount of information, much of it moving in various simultaneous directions. "Prolegómenos a toda tijuanología del peor-venir" will hopefully be translated into English, but when it is it will surely still bear the scars it now enacts, scars that remind the reader of the impossibility of translation.
I've read less of Saavedra's work, most of it through his blog. His contribution is a semi-autobiographical short story, "Foukaka Crew." The story tells of a night out with friends at a club. Each of the friends in the story is presented in snapshot stills, a nightlife glow encapsulating their quick (or is it rushed?) movements through the arc of the plot. Saavedra's story instantly made me think of Salvador Garmendia's evocations of Caracas nightlife in the late 1950s, in the novel Día de ceniza. Like Garmendia, Saavedra understands that leisure is as dramatic and dangerous as any adventure. But what I most appreciate in this short story is the pleasure I get from his language, the precise evocations of a post-1990s sensibility of despair, handled with grace and a tinge of visionary (or psychedelic) faith.
My poem "House Made of Dawn" will be printed up as a broadside for the reading I'll be giving this weekend in Ithaca. Nos vemos.