Beach Poets

Blake Morrison

  • The Fortunate Traveller by Derek Walcott
    Faber, 99 pp, £3.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 571 11893 3
  • Sun Poem by Edward Kamau Brathwaite
    Oxford, 104 pp, £4.95, April 1982, ISBN 0 19 211945 1
  • Collected Poems by Bernard Spencer, edited by Roger Bowen
    Oxford, 149 pp, £8.50, October 1981, ISBN 0 19 211930 3
  • Selected Poems by Odysseus Elytis
    Anvil, 114 pp, £6.95, November 1981, ISBN 0 85646 076 1
  • Poems from Oby by George MacBeth
    Secker, 67 pp, £4.00, March 1982, ISBN 0 436 27017 X
  • The New Ewart: Poems 1980-1982 by Gavin Ewart
    Hutchinson, 115 pp, £4.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 09 146980 5
  • The Apple-Broadcast by Peter Redgrove
    Routledge, 133 pp, £3.00, November 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0884 8

A more sophisticated version of Larkin’s cry ‘Foreign poetry? No!’ is the belief that the poetry of certain parts of the world (Eastern Europe, for example) is intrinsically more interesting than that of other parts. This isn’t only a matter of some countries being thought politically more dramatic, and therefore poetically more absorbing, than others, nor of the Teutonic going down better here than the Latin. There is also the matter of climate, and the custom the British have of treating all points south as places of leisure and relaxation which for fifty weeks of the year can scarcely be said to exist at all. According to this view, the poetry associated with Mediterranean and Caribbean countries must always be off the literary map: one can expect very little from books with titles like The Fortunate Traveller (Derek Walcott), Sun Poem (Edward Kamau Brathwaite), Aegean Islands (Bernard Spencer) and Sun the First (Odysseus Elytis).

Walcott confronts this prejudice in his new volume. Dividing his poems into those set in exile in the ‘North’ (the United States and Britain) and those of the ‘South’ (the Antilles and Greece), he seems about to offer a conventional contrast between hot and cold. In one of the first poems, we observe him shivering in exile through a Manhattan winter, ‘flu in my bones like a lantern’, sustained only by the thought that back home all is going on as always: the seas warm and the neighbours in the open together, ‘talking over palings’. But his opening Caribbean poem begins, disorientingly, with the ‘islands hissing in rain’, the intemperate weather symptomatic of a sea-change in the social order; and in ‘Hurucan’ the winds of change achieve a terrifying force, sweeping Jehovah-like across the land, lifting zinc roofs from their nails ‘like freight uncrated with a crowbar’ and leaving the poet to observe the quietly awesome rearrangements of the morning after the night before – those roofs scattered on the hillside, ‘like cards dropped during a shoot-out’. The last image is typical of the book’s martial mood: in ‘Beachhead’ the pleasure zone of a beach is transformed into the source of an ‘ancestral quarrel’, where surf breaks like a plasterer ‘smoothing fresh cenotaphs’ and

Sandpipers burst like white
notes from a ceremonial band.

Walcott has hot news from the Caribbean: ‘unrest’, ‘governments falling’, ‘junta and coup d’état, the newest Latino mood’. But he doesn’t find the changes heart-warming. The theme of ‘The Spoiler’s Return’, a part-patois, part-Popeian satire, is plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – or, as this becomes in dialect: ‘Things ain’t go change, they ain’t go change at all.’ Allying himself with the conservative sceptic ‘V.S. Nightfall’, Walcott’s Spoiler, a dead musician revisiting Port of Spain in ghostly form, harks back to the common purpose that prevailed for blacks during the Commonwealth (‘we was in chains, but chains made us unite’) and compares it to ‘what passing over this Caribbean’ today:

Is crab climbing crab-back, in a crab-quarrel,
and going round and round in the same barrel,
is sharks with shirt-jacs, sharks with well-pressed fins,
ripping we small fry off with razor grins;
nothing ain’t change but color and attire ...

Walcott evidently means to identify himself with Spoiler. Classically educated and widely travelled, he can’t share in the brave new optimism of Independence and Black Power. He sees the old inequalities persisting – ‘black still poor, though black is beautiful’ – and his acquaintance with the example of earlier empires (he imagines himself in a glass-bottomed boat looking down on Atlantis, Sidon, Tyre and Alexandria) makes him see late-imperialist brutality all around him both in the Caribbean and United States. He understands his function to be to warn against the arrogance of power, wherever it has its seat, a function which condemns him – so he suggests in a near-sentimental image – to remain ‘a single, circling homeless satellite’. His only company is the dead: in ‘The Spoiler’s Return’ he is ‘backed up’ by Martial, Juvenal and Rochester, and in ‘The Hotel Normandie Pool’ he is visited by Ovid, a sandalled hotel-guest in a toga made of terry cloth, who speaks comfortingly of exile and the value of art.

But Walcott doesn’t take comfort. In the title poem he explores self-accusingly the relationship between travel and betrayal. The speaker is a man who has attained a position of power in a Third World country, and who is used to being told: ‘You are so fortunate, you get to see the world.’ But seeing the world, we discover, means seeing it as if through a reversed telescope: individual pain and suffering shrink to ‘an oval nest of antic numerals’. The speaker completes a transaction the exact circumstances of which remain unclear (the poem has the shady atmosphere of a thriller) but which will evidently bring further hardship to the world’s poor:

I crossed the canal in a gray overcoat,
on one lapel a crimson buttonhole
for the cold ecstasy of the assassin.
In the square coffin manacled to my wrist:
small countries pleaded through the mesh of graphs
in treble-spaced, Xeroxed forms to the World Bank
on which I had scrawled the one word, MERCY.

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