December 1, 2004
Two Excerpts From The Prodigal
In autumn, on the train to Pennsylvania,
he placed his book face-down on the sunlit seat
and it began to move. Metre established,
carried on calm parallels, he preferred to read
the paragraphs, the gliding blocks of stanzas
framed by the widening windows
Italian light on the factories, October's
motley in Jersey, wild fans of trees, the blue
metallic Hudson, and in the turning aureate afternoon,
dusk on rose brickwork as if it were Siena.
Nothing. Nobody at the small railroad station.
The willows fan open. Here we hung our harps,
as the river slid past to elegiac banjos
and the barge crawled along an ochre canal
past the white spires of autumnal towns
and racketing freight trains all long whoop and echo.
Stations, bridges and tunnels enter their language
and the scribble of brown twigs on a blank sky.
And now the cars began to fill with pilgrims,
while the book slept. With others in the car,
he felt as if he had become a tunnel
through which they entered the idea of America-
familiar mantling through the tunnel's skin.
It was still unfamiliar, the staidness of trains.
And the thoughtful, the separate, gliding in cars
on arrowing rails serenely, each gripped face intent
on the puzzle of distance, as stations pass
without waving, and sad, approaching cities
announced by the prologue of ramshackle yards
and toothless tunnels, and the foliage rusting
across an old aqueduct, loomed and then dwindled
into their name. There were no stations
or receding platforms in the maps of childhood
nor blizzards of dogwood, no piercing steeples
from buttressed cathedrals, nor statues whose base
held dolphins, blunt browed, repeating themselves.
Look at that man looking from the stalled window-
he contains many absences. He has ridden
over infinite bridges, some with roofs below,
many where the afternoon glittered like mica
on the empty river. There was no time
to fall in love with Florence, to completely understand
Wilmington or the rusty stanchions
that flashed past with their cables
or how the screaming gulls knew
the names of all the women he had lost.
There was sweet meditation on a train
even of certain griefs, a gliding time
on the levelled surface of elegiac earth
more than the immortal motion of a blue bay
next to the stone sails of graves, his growing loss.
Echoing railway stations drew him to fiction,
their web of schedules, incoherent announcements,
the terror of missing his train, and because trains
(their casual accuracy, the joy in their gliding power)
had, there were no trains on the islands
of his young manhood, a child's delight in motion,
their lines and paragraphs and smoky arches
of unread famous novels that stayed the same
for yet another fall with its bright counties,
he knew, through the gliding window, the woods would lift
in lament for all the leaves of the unread books,
Anna Karenina, or the long wail of smoke
across Alpine meadows, of soldiers leaning
out of war-crowded cars, a separate joy
more rooted in landscapes than the flare of battles.
In the middle of the nineteenth century,
somewhere between Balzac and Lautramont,
a little farther on than Baudelaire Station
where bead-eyed Verlaine sat, my train broke down,
and has been stuck there since. When I got off
I found that I had missed the Twentieth Century.
I studied those small things which besieged the station,
the comical belligerence of dragonflies
and the perpetual astonishment of owls.
It was another country whose time had passed,
with pastoral willows and a belief in drawing.
I saw where Courbet lived; I saw the big quarry
and the lemon light of Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot.
The noise of roaring parliaments a noise
that sounded like the ocean, whorled in my ear-shell,
was far, and the one sibilance was of the poplars
who once bowed to Hobbema. My joy was stuck.
The small station was empty in the afternoon,
as it had been on the trip to Philadelphia.
I sipped the long delight of a past time
where ambition was too'late. My craft was stuck.
My deep delight lay in being dated
like the archaic engine. Peace was immense.
But Time passed differently than it did on water.
There is a continent outside my window,
in the Hudson's patient narrative. There's some calm.
But traffic hurtles up the West Side Highway,
and in fall, the embankment blazes, but
even in spring sunlight I have rarely sought
the glittering consolation of the river,
its far-fetched history, the tongues of unknown trees
talk to an old man sitting on a bench.
Along the smouldering autumnal sidewalks,
the secretive coffee-shops, bright flower stalls,
wandering the Village in search of another subject
other than yourself, it is yourself you meet.
An old man remembering white-headed mountains.
And subtly the sense insinuates itself
that frequent exile turns into treachery,
missing the seasons at the table of July
on lower Seventh Avenue when young women glide
like Nereids in their lissome summer dresses
all those Susannas for a single elder!
In spring the leaves sing round a tireless statue
who will not sit although invited to.
From a fresh- to a salt-water muse. Home to the Hudson.
The bells on a bright Sunday from my bed,
the squares of sunlight on the buildings opposite
the river slate, the sky cloudless, enamelled.
Then Sunday brings its summary of the world,
with the serene Hudson and its criss-crossing ferries,
great clouds and a red barge.
Gaze, graze on the numerous greys
of the river, its spectral traffic
and the ghostly bridges, the bouquet of lamps
along the embankment your name fades into fog.
Clouds, the sag of old towels, sodden in grey windows,
the far shore scumbled by the fog,
ducks bob on the grey river like decoys,
not ducks but the submerged pieces of an old pier,
lights fade from the water, "Such, such were the joys,"
muffled remorse in the December air.
Grass, bleached to straw on the precipice of Les Cayes,
running in the blue and green wind of the Trade,
a small church hidden in a grove past Soufrire
hot dasheen and purpling pomme arac,
and heavy cattle in a pasture, and the repetition
of patois prayers by the shallows of Troumasse
and there are still her eyes waiting for the small lights
that bring them to life, in which are reflected
the gold glints of labels in the Folies-Bergre bar
and the rust and orange of an April Glory cedar
the leaves falling like curses from the gommier maudit
a gull plucking fish from the shallows,
in the distance, the hump of a hazed mountain
the ochreing meadows and the continuous cresting
of combers coming in, leaves spinning in the breeze
and the spray steadily spuming, the jets of bougainvillea
all these must mould her cheekbones and a mouth
that says, "I come from Mon Repos," from Saltibus
from the curve of the road entering Canaries
and from the white nights of an insomniac Atlantic
that toss on the reefs of Praslin, that made me.
O blessed pivot that makes me a palm!
A silent exclamation at the cliff's edge
around whom the horizon silently spins!
What thuds against the hull butting with such force?
Angels are gliding underneath the keel.
Time, that gnaws at bronze lions and dolphins
that shrivels fountains, had,exhausted him;
a cupola in Milan exhaled him like incense,
Abruzzi devoured him, Firenze spat him out,
Rome chewed his arm and flung it over her shoulder
for the rats in the catacombs; Rome took his empty eyes
from the sockets of the Colosseum. Italy ate him.
Its bats at vespers navigated her columns
with an ancient elation, a hand in San Marco's font
aspersed him with foul canal water, then bells
tossed their heads like bulls, and their joy
rattled the campaniles, as innumerable pigeons
settled on the square of his forehead, his kidneys
were served in a modest hotel in Pescara,
a fish mimicked his skeleton in salty Amalfi
until after a while there was nothing left of him
except this: a name cut on a wall that soon
from the grime of indifference became indecipherable.
We were headed steadily into the open sea.
Immeasurable and unplummetable fathoms
too deep for sounding or for any anchor
the waves quick running, crests, we were between
the pale blue phantoms of Martinique and Saint Vincent
on the iron rim of the ringing horizon,
the farther we went out, the white bow drumming,
plunging and shearing spray, the wider my fear
the whiter my spume-shot cowardice, as the peaks,
receded, rooted on their separating world,
diminishing in the idea of home, but still the prow
pressed stubbornly through the gulfs and the helmsman
kept nodding in their direction through the glass
between the front deck and the wheel, their direction
meaning what we could not see but he knew was there
from talking on the radio to the other boat
that lay ahead of us towards which we plunged
and droned, a white slip Of another smaller cruiser,
convinced by his smiling that we would breach them soon,
"Dolphins," the steersman said. "You will see them playing,"
but this was widening into mania, there were only
the crests that looked to their leaping, no fins,
no arching backs, no sudden frieze, no school today,
but the young captain kept on smiling, I had never
seen such belief in legend, and then, a fin-hint!
not a crest, and then splaying open under the keel
and racing with the bow, the legend broke water
and was reborn, her screams of joy
and my heart drumming harder, .and the pale blue islands
were no longer phantom outlines, and the elate spray
slapped our faces with joy, andeverything came
back as it was between the other islets, but
those with our own names, sometimes a fin
shot up, sometimes a back arched and re-entered
the racily running waves under which they glanced;
I saw their wet brown bodies gunning seaward
more brown than golden despite the name "dorado,"
but I guess in the wet light their skins shone
too raw, too quiet to be miraculous V.
too strange to quiet my fear, the skittering fish
from the first line of the open page, held
and held until the school was lost, the prodigal's home
was the horizon while my own peaks
loomed so inconsolably again, the roads, the roofs
of Soufrire in the wet sunlight. I watched them come.
I had gaped in anticipation of an emblem
carved at a fountain's pediment from another sea
and when the dolphins showed up and I saw them
they arched the way thoughts rise from memory.
They shot out of the glacial swell like skiers
hurtling themselves out of that Alpine surf
with its own crests and plungings, spuming slopes
from which the dolphins seraphically soared
to the harps of ringing wires and humming ropes ,
to which my heart clung and those finished hopes
that I would see you again, my twin, "my dolphin."
And yet elation drove the dolphins'course
as if both from and to you, their joy was ours.
And had there been a prophecy that said: "Wait!
On a day of great delight you will see dolphins."
Or, in the ashes and embers of a wrecked sunset
the same voice, falling as quietly as a flag, said,
before the constellations arranged their chaos,
"Those drifting cinders are angels, see how they soar,"
I would not have believed in them, being too old
and skeptical from the fury of one life's
determined benedictions, but they are here.
Angels and dolphins. The second, first.
And always certainly, steadily, on the bright rim
of the world, getting no nearer or nearer, the more
the bow's wedge shuddered towards it, prodigal,
that line of light that shines from the other shore.
Excerpted from The Prodigal, by Derek Walcott, to be published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2004 by Derek Walcott. All rights reserved.
DEREK WALCOTT was born in St. Lucia in 1930. His Collected Poems: 1948-1984 was published in 1986, and his subsequent works include Omeros (1990), The Bounty (1997), and Tiepolo's Hound (2000). He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992.
Copyright World Poetry, Incorporated Nov/Dec 2004