The Books of My Numberless Dreams

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Printed in the May 15th New York Review of Books.

The hulls of white yachts riding the orange water
of the marina at dusk, and, under their bowsprits the chuckle
of the chain in the stained sea; try to get there
before a green light winks from the mast and the foc’sle
blazes with glare, while dusk hangs in suspension
with crosstrees and ropes and a like-livid sky
with its beer stein of cloud froth touched by the sun,
as stars come out to watch the evening die.
In this orange hour the light reads like Dante,
three lines at a time, their symmetrical tension,
quiet bars rippling from the Paradiso
as a dinghy writes lines made by the scanty
metre of its oar strokes, and we, so
mesmerized can barely talk. Happier
than any man now is one who sits drinking
with his lifelong companion under the winking
stars and the steady arc lamp at the end of the pier.

Derek Walcott

I dig Walcott. Truly. But I wonder if the NYRB would ever consider posting a poem by Edward K Brathwaite? That could be interesting. I’m curious because a Walcott poem led me to look up a Brathwaite one that I know he’s alluding to (damn if I can find which one it is yet) and I got caught up in reading his 60s work which, wow, pretty in your face. But then the NYRB wouldn’t print something like Walcott’s “Dread Song”, anyway.


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 “ 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.

What a difference a new (to me) contemporary poetry collection makes. Reading Walcott has led me to new ideas about the different forms of poetry collections, how they’re arranged, specifically, and how that influences my reading. It reminded me what a lot of work it is. I’m (pleasantly) forced to do minute analysis that I don’t do when reading novels (though I probably should but, argh, so many words and stuff! :p). I marvelled again at the big ideas that a poet would do his best to encompass and convey in a single page. Sea Grapes was not the only collection capable of doing this but if one is going to acquire new perspectives it’s best to do so with remarkable poems rather than bland ones.

Did I mention it was hard? Not that I should overstate things but I found his poems more difficult to close read than those in, say, Louise Glück’s Averno. There are still poems in her collection that I find opaque but it’s more due to the fact that I haven’t given them my full attention; and I feel that, once I find the right starting point,the poem’s other points will become readily apparent or more accessible, based on past experience. With Sea Grapes‘ poems I may find one entry point and follow that path to the end (if I’m very lucky) or part way and then have to step back and find another path in and another until I feel satisfied with what I’ve gleaned. Each poem is like a maze with several pathways to the end but in Averno the walls between the different routes are more permeable. Which is not to say that Walcott’s poems don’t work as unified wholes but he puts a lot into them and almost always chooses to do so with varying degrees of subtlety and complex interlinking. If I read a poem, like “The Virgins”, and got the main gist after about two or three readings — not close reading just repetition to get the poem’s basic sense — in one sense it didn’t feel like a Walcott experience. What? I’d think to myself. Must be some kind of trap here…he’s lulled me into complacency.

I’ve properly read the collection’s first five poems which worked as a loose group for me. They all have strong, obvious Caribbean connections where as the next few poems shift to New York, Europe and the Christian creation myth and I could see thematic connections but could not quite get into their situations; you’re working with my current, incomplete take on the book.

The book’s title is taken from the opening poem. Because of that I use it as the collection’s epicentre and when reading other poems, endeavour to find out whether they develop ideas, references or images in “Sea Grapes”. Averno worked differently: the title poem was placed in the middle as a kind of climax with various peaks before in the poems about Persephone, her mother and Hades. This realization has made me seriously consider the wisdom of buying “selected” editions without first trying the complete versions. Anyway, on to “Sea Grapes”.

That little sail in light
which tires of islands,
a schooner beating up the Caribbean

for home, could be Odysseus,
home-bound on the Aegean,
that father and husband’s

longing, under gnarled sour grapes, is
like the adulterer hearing Nausicaa’s name
in every gull’s outcry;

This brings nobody peace. The ancient war
between obsession and responsibility
will never finish and has been the same

for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore
now wriggling on his sandals to walk home,
since Troy lost its old flame,

and the blind giant’s boulder heaved the trough
from whose ground-swell the great hexameters come
to finish up as Caribbean surf.

The classics can console. But not enough.

A sea grape bush grows near beaches in tropical climates in the Caribbean area. It can withstand a high amount of salt and so is often planted to stabilize beach edges. It’s also edible and good as jam. And with that you’re immediately put by the sea, a setting that permeates the first few poems in this collection and courses through much of Walcott’s poetry. He works to establish the island image in the reader’s mind, particularly Caribbean ones, and then investigates how its past and present affects both his and the reader’s perspective. He does this through literary and biblical references, playing on assumptions and stereotypes (inverting and reversing them including his own expected role), working with contrasts and, in some moments, making a straight play at trying to encompass and define in words intangible, revelatory, powerful moments. There will be many similes to help readers out and Walcott is very careful in shaping our focus with word and verse length and rhythm to create effects that develop the poem’s meaning.

Note the diction in the first two stanzas. Walcott quietly builds the scene with short lines filled with one or two syllable words. They are tight, compact, focused until he starts to explicate his feelings. The third stanza acts as a transition and the rest are expansive with longer lines, longer words, less commas so that the less uninterrupted rhythm coerces us to break down his meaning rather than be caught up in stark images (although there is the “blind giant” near the end). The poem ends in brevity.

The enjambments in the first three stanzas help to compact meaning while still effecting a flow of continuous thematic development. The first break puts “home” with the “home-bound” Odysseus; his more appropriate “longing” for family contrasted with his adulterous one for Nausicaa (which is a departure from Homer’s The Odyssey if I’m remembering it right). He forges connections with other word arrangements as well with “Caribbean”, “Odysseus” and “Aegean” all at the end of successive lines.

One has a clearer idea of what techniques Walcott uses to convey a topic that’s discernible after a couple of reads. Observing the schooner sailing Caribbean waters reminds him of Odysseus’ ship sailing the Aegean. The ancient Greek’s own experiences of attempting to reconcile his familial obligations with his own desires reminds Walcott of his own conflict, one that partly lies with the Homer epic itself — the love he has for Western European art when his existence and residence was brought about by that region’s greed and inhumanity. It is “[t]he ancient war/between obsession and responsibility” taking place “under snarled sour grapes”. This frustration is why he describes the boat as being tired of its surrounds, so anxious to leave its “beating up” the water to get home. This projection of his interior mood on to the external objects is something that will pop up in subsequent poems.

The word “war” is a little jarring in the leisurely setting (yes, I can’t help but see it that way, there’s a guy chilling on the beach after all) and the fierce turmoil the word conveys also works against the poem’s quiet. Earlier on, I pointedly mentioned that Walcott “quietly” created various scenes because the entire poem appeals strongly to sight but not to sound. It has a banked quality, a restrained subtely that is broken only when he mentions a “gull’s outcry”. For me, though, that word isn’t a particularly sensual choice. This silence helps create a tension that is broken in a later poem. The adjective “ancient” before war is more important because it solidifies that link between now and the past and interjects the idea that Walcott’s problem is not singular, perhaps not even unique, for it “has been the same/for the sea wanderer or the one on shore/now wriggling on his sandals to walk home”.

Although the poem at the end conveys defeatism, as a reader, when I see such dour thoughts develop into such a beautifully evocative passage —

and the blind giant’s boulder heaved the trough
from whose ground-swell the great hexameters come
to finish up as Caribbean surf.

— it’s an optimistic moment, despite the bald, final statements that follow. There will always be a separation but it can be bridged if not erased.

Next: Walcott’s Frederiksted trilogy


Posted on: April 13, 2008

Yes, yes I’m still alive but am busy and also, frankly, not in a blogging mood. This will change as soon as I figure out how to write my first post on Walcott — I must string comments on a few poems together in a way that makes sense and doesn’t bore me to tears. This is harder than it sounds, at least for the first poem in the collection, Sea Grapes, as I find myself coming up with the tired “Walcott’s-conflict-with-mixed-heritage” yadda yadda which is probably all right but my thoughts on the other four poems are so much more interesting. And that may be because they take on and develop bits of “Sea Grapes”. If all else fails I’ll read what others have said as it seems to be one of his popular poems.

There is not much new, reading wise, as it is end of term and exam season so I had and still have a lot of glorious marking to look forward to. Undergrads always seem to have a lot of drama around this time too so I had to deal with one student who had a panic attack over a late assignment and another who came in asking for help on a topic but who ended up in tears about a boyfriend who made her “feel like shit”. Mmmmhhhmm. Worst, the Science student-run food shop is now closed so I no longer have access to 45¢ doughnuts or $1.00 Arizona teas.

Villette is now an odd companion read with the Walcott for he is very restrained and subtle, careful, while Lucy has just escaped from mental torment including suicidal thoughts — my goodness! How did the Victorian readership react to that? — as Volume I ends with her physical collapse on a strange street during a storm. It seemed a bit much after Walcott’s brief, laden lines on Sunday Lemons.

Brontë’s anti-Catholicism is also bothersome because it looms so largely in the story. For a moment or two I spitefully wished Lucy had succumbed to a priest’s kindness and ended up on her knees in a Carmelite nunnery in the Italian hills somewhere so I could point and laugh.

I’m having a harder time of explicating anything on contemporary prose. I finished a Dubus and the latest from Lydia Millet but cannot put anything down neither on screen or paper. A re-reading ought to fix things but I’m reluctant to do so for, in my impatience, I long for more and new not to go over the old. And I belatedly recall that I have Dreaming in Cuban to read for Slaves of Golconda, due at the end of the month. (I’ll probably reread. I’m less concerned about the Dubus than the Millet because on one level I enjoyed it and got what it was going for, more or less, on another there’s a stubborn gap between us. Listening to her Bat Segundo interview did not bridge it although it did cement the first impressions I had. Also, fun!)

Reading the World 2008 (via Literary Saloon) is here so if anyone needs ideas for translated reads (especially Chinese literature) do have a look around the site. The latest Bookforum (which had scads and scads of uninterrupted (ie no ads) fiction reviews in which I blissfully rolled around) reviewed one of FSG’s selections for the initiative: The GIrl on the Fridge by Etgar Keret, translated by Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston. The best surprise this issue was the review of Rudy Wurlitzer’s latest novel The Drop Edge of Yonder, his first in 20+ years. I read a novel excerpt of Nog (to be reissued in 2009 according to the review) in The Paris Review No. 38 and my interest in eventually reading his fiction never faded. Another Paris Review contributor’s book is with Reading the World: The Corpse Walker by Yiwu Liao, translated by Huang Wen, published by Knopf, and one of the books I am sure to get (along with The Diving Pool).

It’s a beautiful Sunday spring morning here which I enjoyed earlier in open-toed shoes even though my toes curled a little at 10°C. Life was made better by the internet re-launch of First Magazine a Jamaican publication that defies easy categorisation. Because it isn’t trying to be anything else but excellent you get an attention-grabbing mixture of literature, photography and journalism that encompass a variety of styles: hard-edged photojournalism, Paris-Vogue-tacky editorials, better-than-New Yorkershort stories (I know this because my eyelids didn’t start to droop after the first paragraph), on-the-spot interviews of “regular” Jamaicans, history articles, –whether it’s about controversial African-American boxers or older, dapper Jamaicans posing with their vintage vehicle (reminded me a bit of Sartorialist shots) –, music, and who knows what the contributors will come up with next. Jamaica — the good, bad and ugly — is all there open to censor, appreciation, critique, laughter; there’s a strange dissonance that’s created when you move from pictures of a murder scene to a glam shot of Miss Jamaica (which reminded me of Marlon James’ The Miss Jamaica Mulatto Factory). But it’s working for me.

The only thing the staff needs to do is get those older issues out in PDF! I could only make it through two of those slideshows, eyes straining at the 1 point, blurred font before I gave up.


Many bloggers have noted that it’s Poetry Month in Canada & the USA. Kate is hosting a Modest Poetry Challenge: all you have to do is write a critical post on a poem, not just the poem itself, in order to encourage us to develop the skills and vocabulary for a task that most of us avoid because we don’t feel confident enough to do so. I’m not officially joining the challenge but I do intend to do more posts on Paradise Lost. Reading Lorna Goodison’s memoir on her mother put me in a Caribbean frame of mind so I ended up picking up Derek Walcott’s Sea Grapes one of his 70s collections. I studied him for A-levels but never really got him — the teacher constantly bleated about his “ambivalence” towards the two apposite cultures he inherited and then got annoyed when we bleated the same thing back to her — and I’ve become less enchanted with “Collected” editions, more interested in reading single titles from beginning to end and get a feel for the product, the way I do with fiction.

Sunday Salon

  • Colin Burrow’s contribution to this year’s Lady Margaret Lectures on Milton at Cambridge U is now available as a podcast (finally!). Entitled “Milton’s Singularity” it even comes with a handout (PDF). That’s exactly why he’s one of my favourite lit crits. Unfortunately for rabid Milton fans the next lecture, “Milton: Poetry vs. Prose” by Sharon Achinstein, is scheduled all the way in May! And then it will take a whole month before it gets uploaded because those silly Cambridge people apparently have better things to do. Sigh.
  • Fence, a darn good literary magazine, is offering its annual subscription for the price you’d like to pay, starting as low as $1.00 USD. Contributions of $300 or more gets you a lifetime subscription. The offer ends at April 30th. Fancy taking them up on it? (via Chekhov’s Mistress which has the full details)

The local Chapters has finally condescended to restock the London Review of Books! I started nagging them about it a year ago and gave up after 6 months — perhaps it takes them a long, long time to process requests. Likelier is that the move had nothing to do with me. I bought a copy today even though I’m a subscriber as a way to encourage them to keep it up. They should view selling them as a public service move if The Great British Press Disaster has any bearing on newspapers on this side of the Atlantic.

One interesting article (only available to subscribers) is Tobias Gregory’s review of Why Milton Matters: A New Preface to His Writings by Joseph Wittreich. If one listened to Quentin Skinner‘s Lady Margaret’s lecture on Milton’s political writings one got a pretty good sense of how his opinions on government, liberty and religion coincided, diverged or were directly relevant to present times. One thing he was cautious to highlight that although Milton has a sexy rebellious image that some historians may be tempted to airbrush his less attractive views in order to make him more superficially appealing. But although Milton was a proponent for religious freedom he wasn’t magnanimous enough to think that Roman Catholics deserved such a right; he may have espoused equality principles but it was only for gentlemen of a certain class and did not include women of any; nor was he wholly against censorship but thought it necessary that printing presses should have the right to publish papers without pre-approval or special licenses.

Going by Gregory’s review Wittreich should have been required to attend that lecture. The more curious thing I’ve come to learn this year and was ignorant of because Milton did not figure at all in my Jamaican high school education is how fusty Milton’s academic image is. Apparently, modernists like Virginia Woolf and Eliot are partly to blame for the situation, one that is dire enough for Gregory to make what I found to be a suspicious, exaggerated statement:

Milton is the greatest English poet whom it is possible for serious readers to dislike. There are no fans of Marlowe, Jonson or Webster who cannot also find pleasure in Shakespeare; there are no admirers of Piers Plowman or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight who cannot also appreciate The Canterbury Tales. But it is not hard to find enthusiastic readers of Marvell or Spenser or Dryden or Donne who cannot warm to Milton, and make no apology for it.

O RLY? I felt an urge to try some Chaucer to prove him wrong. Maybe I hate Marlowe’s plays with an unprecedented fervour yet uncovered because I haven’t read them (yet?). I’m not even sure why he grouped folks like Marvell or Donne with Milton — the first two’s style don’t strike me as being similar to Milton’s at all. Just grouping all same century writers then? I guess I’ve become a bit sensitive about it because every single piece of media coverage I’ve seen on Milton so far first establishes how nobody likes him any more. Eh.

For more popular poetry hop on over to Blog Meridian where John B. blogs about his classroom experiences in teaching “Stopping By Woods on a Snow Evening”: A Thank You. The most intriguing bits for me were the interpretations John and his students discussed in class. That Robert Frost poem is one I first encountered on my own — I wriggled in my chair in glee during a high school English exam (CXC aka ‘O’ levels) once because it appeared on the paper, along with The Wild Swans at Coole by Yeats and no, I don’t know why I remember this — and until now only ever appreciated the visual picture created in my mind. The lines’ rhythm stand out too, especially in the last stanza, but really my first response to the poem whenever I think or read about it it is a mental picture of a man (hazily outlined) on a horse in a forest in the evening with the snow falling softly. John provides a bonus poem too of another Frost poem about someone wandering in the forest: The Wood-pile (which was new to me). For an oldie but goodie posted around this time last year consider lotusgreen’s visual accompaniment to “Stopping By Woods…” at Japonisme.

As an aside, I did not remember the title of the Yeats poem when I composed this post or any lines of it. What I retained was an image, too, of birds (I first thought of geese but that was a different poem) by a lake, by a tree, at evening about to take flight. I also remember having more difficulty with the Yeats poem questions than the Frost. 😛

We move on from mental to actual pictures. Sara at A Different Stripe, the NYRB classics blog, is asking for photos of reader’s “Classics in the wild: at a bookstore, arranged on your bookshelf, propping up an uneven table, anything.” I sent two year old photos in and I know that Stefanie at So Many Books took a picture of one of her book shelves, once, which had some classics. One of the internet’s many pleasures is book shelf ogling so I hope all you classics owners with cameras hop to it.