Posted May 13, 2008on:
I’m posting this incomplete commentary on what I’ve called Walcott’s Frederiksted trilogy in Sea Grapes because if I hold on to it for much longer it will never be completed. First part here which should be read or skimmed in order to better appreciate the following.
The next three poems are a US Virgin Islands trio in which Walcott focuses on Frederkisted, in St. Croix, the island’s former centre now outshone by Christiansted. According to Wikipedia Frederiksted’s port was its major source of industry, tied in with the sugar trade, and when that collapsed it turned to tourism “with some success”. In all three the speaker stands as a critical observer of his surroundings, ever distant and, in the first two poems, cynical. These deal with the town’s economical and cultural depression, peaking in “Frederiksted Nights” before ending in the meditative anti-climax of “Frederiksted, Dusk”.
In “The Virgins”, the first of the three poems, things don’t start so well.
Down the dead streets of sun-stoned Frederiksted,
the first freeport to die for tourism,
strolling at funeral pace, I am reminded
of life not lost to the American dream,
but my small-islander’s simplicities,
can’t better our new empire’s civilized
exchange of cameras, watches, perfumes, brandies
for the good life, so cheaply underpriced
that only the crime rate is on the rise
in streets blighted with sun, stone arches
and plazas blown dry by the hysteria
of rumour. A condominium drowns
in vacancy; its bargains are dusted,
but only a jewelled housefly drones
over the bargains. The roulettes spin
rustily to the wind; the vigorous trade
that every morning would begin afresh
by revving up green water round the pierhead
heading for where the banks of silver thresh.
The title is ironic because the city Walcott describes, far from evoking any such youthful, dewy associations, is filled with “dead streets” that are “blighted with sun”. What’s particularly noticeable is how he inverts all the usual things tropical islands promote as attractive vacation features — sun, ocean, fresh breezes and warm, clear waters — and turns them into destructive agents. Besides the sun the condominiums “drown in vacancy” and “plazas” are “blown dry by the hysteria of rumour”. Walcott himself is in an inverted role — he is not a native here but a tourist in a different country. Even the slower, island stroll indicative of the locals’ less hectic take on life is taken “at funeral pace”. The picture is bleak and the absence of other persons or bustle of activity gives the impression of a ghost town.
What’s caused all this death? Walcott blames tourism and its pathological commodification. He writes that the freeport as the “first..to die for tourism”.
The last few lines are a bit of a puzzle for me. I theorise that “the vigorous trade…revving up green water” refers to the cruise ship industry. That interpretation allows me me to compare it the schooner in “Sea Grapes”. Unlike “that little sail” the cruise ship is not delineated as a physical object but as a less tangible “trade” that is set up to carry a negative connotation. It has no double nor is it linked to a more benign, local image. Walcott only mentions it at the end so the first and last impression readers get is of it leaving indefinitely whereas in “Sea Grapes”, although we have the boat “beating” out of the Caribbean the idea it represents, its link to literary history, returns in the figure of the giant releasing hexameters that turn up in “the Caribbean surf”. And in cruel contrast to the used up town it is the almost certainly foreign owned cruise ship which Walcott describes with prosperous, optimistic diction: “vigorous trade/that ever bright morning” starts “afresh” breaking “green water”; if it isn’t yet clear the “banks of silver thresh” — more lucrative connotations there — as its next destination make it obvious.
So there we have it, the islander’s contempt for cheap colonialism and tourism’s empty rewards. Like I said, when a Walcott poem appears straightforward something is up. That simplicity begins to unravel in Frederiksted Nights. The town is resurrected only to engage in desperate death throes before falling back to dead empty streets.
In the first stanza a band plays at (presumably) the same pier which witnessed the cruise ship’s triumphant departure. Nearby are the expected vendors selling food (“fish-fries”) or their bodies (“the Puerta Ricenan putas/or the lemon Dominican whores”). Walcott creates a highly energetic scene with all the players connected by electrical and sexual diction — the “charge” of the mixed musical style “ignites the fish fries/by the sizzling pierhead”; the line about the prostitutes runs into the one about the “electric guitars rocketing”. It is not a gay scene and electricity’s volatility is heightened by the anger that is similarly a part of the performance. One that ought to be more like the relaxing entertainment brochures promise guest; and the easy sexual pleasures spread by word of mouth. That danger is married in words like “bomb cock”, “crotch trap”, “thudding pelvis”. But what could have ended in a bigger blaze is cut, “short-circuited” and even the moon is a “blown bulb”.
Perhaps there wasn’t enough of an energy supply with all the empty hotel rooms. Again in this scene Walcott is the only observer except for his companion. He’s a little unsympathetic here as is simple small-island perspective sums up and dismisses his environs and the people in it as being at a dead-end. Further on he writes the area off as a characterless any-town with the requisite banks, hotels, poorhouses and “library full of dead books”. Yet that café’s name, “The Corner”, is not a chance inclusion. His lady companion leaves him for its “defeated Chicano proprietor” which is one indication that she sees something in him and perhaps the town that Walcott has missed or underestimated. From that second stanza his insistence on the simple, dismal tourist trap rings with a sullen obstinacy, the awareness that he may be wrong.
Strangely, or perhaps logically, what new dimensionality he affords the town is informed by his doomed romance. (Pretty funny, too.) It continues the pattern first noted in “Sea Grapes” of how the speaker projects his thoughts and moods on to the landscape. When he walks through the towns again he winces and feels his heart being devoured by places that once carried happier associations. He doesn’t look beyond himself and so the poem does not end with a clearer, brighter light source but with him feeling “vague as the moon in daylight”. Only Walcott, I think, can turn an amusing tantrum — kicking ashes at the “stupid pier” — into a graceful ending where he acknowledges that he, rather than anyone else, is the static one, stuck and frustrated.
Also interesting to note is the different takes on simplicity. In “The Virgins” its presented as the positive, sympathetic small-island underdog who just doesn’t get this rampant consumerism. In “Frederiksted Nights” it depicts a more worrying and deficient lack of complexity and depth. In “Frederiksted, Dusk”, the last of the bunch, combines the senses of the first two but broadens to take on more elevated musings.