Margaret Speak Reviews:
Derek Walcott: Selected Poems, Edward Baugh
Glad of These Times, Helen Dunmore
Stitching the Dark, Carole Satyamurti
Derek Walcott: Selected Poems by Edward Baugh Faber & Faber (2007) £16.99
At last a volume of Derek Walcott’s poems which may become a definitive selection, chosen by Jamaican poet and critic Edward Baugh. In his foreword, he gave reasons for his selection. These seem to encompass personal taste, respect for the body of work, some autobiographical strands, a choice of free verse and the many forms of which Walcott is a master, besides constraints of space. Walcott has written long and book-length poems which cannot be included in their entirety. Baugh has taken the sensible decision to include a section, which tells a complete storyline and it is hoped that this flavour will take the reader of the Selected to the original volume from which it was extracted. This edition covers selections from In a Green Night, The Castaway, The Gulf, Another Life, Sea Grapes, The Star-Apple Kingdom, The Fortunate Traveller, Midsummer, The Arkansas Testament, Omeros, The Bounty, Tiepolo’s Hound, The Prodigal from 1948 – 2005.
The word which is most redolent of Walcott’s verse is journey. He has travelled from his native St. Lucia in the Caribbean to Boston in the United States, dividing his time between two places. In his lifetime he has travelled the world literally and culturally. This is evident from his poems. When we read his work we enter into a journey, not just of places he shows to us, but of the journey through his mind and therefore his memory. His autobiographical poem Another Life (1973) expresses clearly the love for his country of birth but also the dichotomies of his position there within the culture. He was from a middle-class Methodist family in a poor, mainly Catholic area, his mother being a teacher, his father having died when he was a year old. He had what would be considered a colonial education which alienated him in some degree from poorer Caribbeans. He was also very aware of history and how many Africans were lost in sea voyages due to the slave trade:
that child who puts the shell’s howl to his ear,
hears nothing, hears everything
that the historian cannot hear, the howls
of all the races that crossed the water
Walcott has been awarded many prizes and when he accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature, he chose to read from Sea Grapes, a favourite poem for many people and which is included in this volume. The poem compares a ship with that of Odysseus and says the war between obsession and responsibility is the same for those who travel the sea and those who remain on shore. As a reader you feel Walcott has never lost his feelings of responsibility towards his birthplace and the people who remain there. A particular favourite of mine is from The Arkansas Testament (1987), St. Lucia’s First Communion. It is staggeringly powerful as it describes innocent children dressed for their First Communion and the author states he wants to hold each child in his hand to protect them from a future which includes prejudice and evil. He uses beautiful imagery and I remember a quotation from William Logan who reviewed The Bounty (1997) and said, ‘What you remember in Walcott is the texture, not the text’. There are always readers wanting to be seduced by beautiful, intelligent writing so read this book, it will not disappoint you.
Margaret Speak, previously published in the Yorkshire Post
Helen Dunmore, Glad of these Times, Bloodaxe Books 2007 £7.95
Helen Dunmore has Yorkshire connections, born in Beverley, graduating from York University. She has won the Orange prize for fiction but her first published work was a book of poems. She has also written children’s fiction. This is her first poetry collection since Out of the Blue:Poems 1975-2001, Bloodaxe. Dunmore is a wonderful writer in any genre so a new book is an event to be cherished. This book praises natural resources, stars, butterflies, lemons, plants. The poem Dolphins whistling is an elegiac warning about our treatment of the environment and natural resources and there are echoes in other poems of her concern of how the human race has the capacity to disturb and spoil the balance so that ultimately it could destroy what is valuable and necessary to its survival.
One or two poems seem less sure-footed in places but most are expressed in beautiful flowing images. Yellow butterflies are ‘the sun’s fingerprints on grey pebbles’; ‘the tall pines make shapes of their limbs’; ‘waves break like narcissi’; and T.S. Eliot is ‘a big cat gone shabby with keeping’. Getting into the car is chilling with a beginning looking at girls in their wedding cars but an ending telling us this never happened as they entered cars where their eyes would be wiped of sight and bodies of breathing. The final poem is an elegy to a life enjoyed and celebrated. Buy this book and be glad of it.
Margaret Speak, previously published in the Yorkshire Post
ISBN 1 85224 692 8
A weighty volume, what a treat! I decided to open a page at random and found Watching Swallows, about a woman approaching her fiftieth birthday honestly, bravely, pragmatically. It is a deceptively simple poem about enjoying the moment, maybe while deferring tasks which are more important and recognising that surviving until fifty may suggest a significant milestone but is more likely to be rather routine. It also happens to be the last poem in her sequence about breast cancer. As Carole’s work is likely to be familiar to many Second Light readers I have decided to concentrate on the new poems in this collection of new and selected poems.
Ballade is about driving north:
streaking like gunshot from nowhere
to nowhere; to pretend that space
is infinite, that I can tear
through the screen of time and place.
But as a reader I chose to extend the thought to
imagination, the journey on which the poet sets
out, not quite certain of the route but sure that
the destination will be worthy of the effort.
Sathyaji is the poem with a line which becomes the
title of the book and a particular favourite of
Love draws you back.
In saying your name, I see it
boat-shaped and luminous
stitching the dark,
Carole is rather good at choosing descriptive pieces which succinctly complement ideas and theories she explores constantly throughout her later work. It helps of course that her descriptive passages are apt and quite perfectly wrought. She has a lightness of touch most poets would be grateful for though I did feel she was less successful in her political poems about Iraq, War Games and Playing with Words at Abu Ghraib. I love the poem Yellow, which would brighten the darkest day or mood, the idea of a leaning tower of lemons in The Other Woman sequence and the wonderful final stanza of Reflections on Glass. I was most moved by the life of The Wood Turner of Jaubertie who has suddenly suffered the bereavement of his young son and now his craft has become art in honouring both grief and memory. One is aware always of the value of life within each individual with either messy or successful ways of coping with daily stresses, strains or happier times but Carole has a truly light touch with her amusing Cabaret Song.
One of the joys of this book for me has been the opportunity to follow the development of voice, craft and technique. There is no doubt that generally these later poems are much stronger and more mature than the earlier ones, though of course there were early gems such as the Broken Moon poems about her daughter, charged with love and pride. Small domestic observations have become commentary on how social attitudes have changed in the space between their writing with telling period detail; wearing a hat in a coffee bar in My First Cup of Coffee to The Way we Live Now and the change in social mores. Carol has several sequences throughout the book, usually sustained by narrative drive, the best for me being Boy With a Fish, written with huge affection without a trace of sentimentality. This is a great bargain of a book with 225 pages of poems. I am pleased to own it and for those of you tempted, I guarantee you will be too.
Margaret Speak, previously published in the Second Light Network Newsletter
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