COPENHAGEN*****Compact, cheerful and cultured


THE FIRST THING you notice about Copenhagen, perched on the westernmost tip of Denmark, a -long-stone’s throw from Sweden, is that the pace is different. It’s not that people are any less hurried. It is after all, a major European capital. It’s just that the hurrying people are hurrying on bicycles, many of which propel large boxy containers of grinning kids on their way to school. The bicycles all seem (to my inexperienced eyes) to be solid, practical, usually well-worn vehicles. There seems to be little, if any, flash to the morning’s dash.

And it all seems spectacularly safe: the cycle lanes are wide, clearly marked, raised surfaces that, with typical Danish friendliness, suggest to passing cars they can just piss off…thank you very much. Here bikes rule. Their whirring wheels dictate the rules of the road and the rhythm of the city.

I’ve been to many bike-dense cities: Delhi, Shanghai, Pnom Penh etc. But there’s a frenzy to the rhythm of the bikes there, where every road-crossing venture feels like a challenge to chaos and an open invitation to broken limbs and cracked heads. Not so here. The pace is tempered by a sense of calm and order. People wait for the lights to change before crossing. Only we dumb tourists made so bold as to ignore the politely waiting natives and scamper across empty streets.


Perhaps because it was April and already the long winter hibernation was easing into days that stretched well into the night, everyone was cheerful. Or perhaps that was just my cynical take on a city that simply feels at ease with itself. Denmark is supposed to be the happiest place on earth, despite the cold, despite the long darkness of winter, despite the high taxes. And it feels like it. People weren’t simply polite, they were jolly. In flawless, unaccented English. The bartenders always brought us our chilled wine with warm cheer. So this is what “hygge” feels like! Once, as we sat sipping said wine, we saw a row of carefully balanced bikes clatter to the ground, blown over by a sudden gust of wind. Tough shit? No. Two men passing by stopped, picked them up, carefully steadied them and moved on. Huh? Did we just see that? It’s as though the immediate stop to help is part of Danish muscle memory.

A beautiful city with great food, stunning architecture and…Danes. This must be some sort of high point of what it means to be civilized (or maybe just a clever veneer to mask a well hidden dark side…the side we all know so well from “The Killing”)
Said “beautiful city” is a compact one, easily accessed by the many stops of the S trains (which travel mainly overland) and the Metro (A three day tourist pass costs about £25…nothing’s cheap here; though in five days we were never asked to show our tickets). It is a cultured quilt of contrasting neighborhood characters…from the bucolic residential wealth of Frederiksberg in the east, with its graceful, water-laced heron-rich parks to the bustling, curving cobbled streets of shopper bound, tourist crowded City in the center, to the dark silences of black, blank, secret, private banking Christianhavn in the west, to the youthful vibrancy of Vesterbro in the south.

The way to experience all this is by foot (after all, Stroget is the longest pedestrianized shopping street in Europe… though really not worth the visit). Copenhagen is a delightfully eclectic blend of dark seventeenth century North Renaissance architecture, churches with minaret-high towers, idiosyncratic structures (Borsen, the stock exchange is topped by a sky-piercing tower comprised of the plaited tails of four roaring dragons. Kalessi, where are you?)

reclaimed (and trendified) warehouses with their bearded baristas and cute wine bars; tall, genteel, ornament-free eighteenth century burgher’s homes (the unshowey restraint of the Lutheran sensibility is evident even in the Royal palaces) and pockets of strikingly modern architecture. Though Denmark (when it was twinned with Norway) had scattered colonial outposts, the feel of the city lacks the imperial, slave-funded pomp of places like Brussels.
   

There are parks – and flower shops- everywhere (all of which have their own extensive lake-large ponds) and the entire place, threaded by a network of waterways, is embraced by two wide canals. Some parts -Kastellet, a seventeenth century star shaped fortress surrounded by a moat, the administrative center, Christianborg Slot, and just to the West, Christianshavn – are themselves islands within the city itself. They’re all brushed by the wakes of laden sightseeing boats and monied yachts whose slow flow down the cold canals fed from the Baltic Sea, lend the city a mood of unhurried leisure. Relax. You move too fast. Gotta make the moment last.


In a world bent on building walls, here is a city of bridges.
(Indeed, just by chance, while waiting on the famous Tivoli gardens – one of the world’s most kitsch of places – to open, we wandered into the Town Hall. There, there was an exhibition of “refugee voices”: a hundred refugees were photographed and their stories documented. The exhibition offered viewers synopses of the disasters – wars, persecution, famine – from which they’d fled. Here was a city boasting of and celebrating its moral role in the acceptance of refugees. In a world of Trump, May and LePen, such sentiment seems quaint…unthinkable!)


And if all this isn’t enough, go for the new Danish cuisine (smorrebrod is sooo out!): new flavor combinations of fresh locally sourced ingredients whipped into impossibly light concoctions and topped with a drizzle of greenery that actually add taste and depth instead of a mere flourish of color. These places are expensive. Much cheaper are the bustling, buzzy, food halls and food markets, where pretty much anything from tapas to pizza to sushi (those Danish staples) to, yes, smorrebrod, are, like the wine and beer, readily on tap.


(Or, if drugs are your thing, you can groove on across the Torvegade bridge to the free state of Christiania, a hippy-esque hang out where marijuana dealers openly, and legally, solicit your custom)

So is it the food…or the drugs that make the Danes (and Copenhagen itself was voted happiest city in the world) so damned happy? According to the (no doubt, Marxist) Danes, it’s their welfare state. They’ve made the astonishing link between paying (lots of) taxes and getting in return -free- top notch education, health care, roads, public art, parks and social care. Brilliant. No wonder Neil’s Bohr (who, with Einstein, pretty much invented quantum physics) was Danish.

Now let’s hope the presence  of refugees in their midst doesn’t bring to light the hidden right of Danish noir.

Where we ate and drank (and would recommend):
Spisehuset: it’s a small, intimate restaurant run by the bearded chef/owner and two others. A very friendly place, located in an obscure alley in the old side of the Meatpacking area (Kodbyen). There’s a price fixe menu (300k)…everything’s good. But the desert was just this side of heaven.
Slagtehusgade 5C, Kobenhaven V

Host. A converted many layered corner house; reclaimed timber and eager, super helpful staff. Prixe Fixe (300k or 450k). Features an extraordinary artichoke froth topped with caviar.
Norre Farimagsgade 41.

Brod. Reputed (deservedly) for offering the best (fresh from the oven, delicately, crumblingly delicious) Danish pastries. An absolute breakfast must. Open from 7
Enghave Pl 7

Kanalens. Here there’s a choice between prixe fixe (400k) or a la carte. Superb food and service and an outstanding location (on Christiania) on a finger of water opposite a lovely, moored schooner.
Wilder Plads 2

(This area – Christiania- boasts a number of great looking restaurants: cafe Wilder -where we had excellent Cosmos- is at Wildersgade 56 and just opposite, Sankt Annae 8)

The food markets at Papioren (Paper Island on Christianshavn) and off Norreport S station are “must go” places. Share a table or a counter and join the happy fellow eaters.

Drink:
Granola is by day a breakfast place that, magically transforms itself into a cosy cocktail lounge, offering a tempting range of cocktails.
Vaernedamsvej 5, Frederiksberg

Jo-Jo’s Social: good for a quick mid morning break for bubbly. Landemaerket 7, Kobenhaven C

Stemple: in Vesterbro, if you happen to be staying in this trendy district. Airy, relaxed and friendly
Enghave Pl 2

 

THE HANDMAIDEN**** “Hell hath no fury…”


“THE HANDMAIDEN” IS Park Chan-Wook’s outrageously sexy retelling of Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith”, a story originally set in Victorian London, now transferred to 1930’s Japanese occupied Korea. The story – structured around the delicious contrasts of bright surface opulence with dark hidden deceptions – centres on the lusts, fantasies and longings of four main characters. Sookie (Kim Tae-ri) is a low life pickpocket in the pay of a con-man (Ha Jung-woo). She has been briefed to present herself, as a respectable handmaiden to the wealthy (and reputedly naive) heiress Hideko (Kim Min-hee), in order to subtly woo her on behalf of her con-man boss, now disguised as the aristocratic Count Fujiwara. His intent is to seduce Hideko away from her uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), an old lecher and collector of erotica, who also has designs on Hideko’s fortune.


Despite their stark social differences, dramatised by the dingy hovel of the one versus the palatial splendour of the other, Sookie and Hideko are both prisoners…of circumstance and convention. Both have been bred and trained, like decorative birds, to do the bidding of their breeders: Sookie to steal, Hideko to engage and entertain her uncle’s book-buying clientele with her lascivious readings of his erotica. To their male ‘masters’, they’re no more than beautiful, erotic routes to their deepest lusts…for money not sex. And as the handmaiden dresses herself in her mistress’ dresses, they both become interchangeable…almost mirror images of each other.

But the men, so wrapped up in their own sense of haughty masculine superiority (It would not be inappropriate in this context to describe them as “cock-sure”) have no inkling of the far deeper deviousness of these two trapped women. Freedom will out. In one glorious scene, Hideko -she who can go nowhere- introduces the bare-footed Sookie to her serried rows of shoes…and offers her a pair. Now they both have the -physical- ability to roam. And in their unspoken search to free themselves from society’s norms/masculine control, they discover the freedom in each other’s bodies. In the trust and tenderness of intimacy lies the healing measure of freedom. Park’s (and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon’s) sensuous, almost tactile cinematography delights as much in the tingle and shimmer of their naked bodies as it does on the textures and gloss of their clothes and surroundings.

Control (the first part of the story is very measured and mannered) gives way to love in a wonderfully, intricately plotted story that frequently loops back on itself, seen from differing points of view and with a single, gasp-inducing twist in the middle. One of the themes that drives the movie is that of the illumination or deception of storytelling (or the art of lying): each of the characters frames a narrative aimed at masking intent and creating a desired image; Hideko’s “role” in life is to seduce by her storytelling; The Count comes along with an entirely fabricated back story; the uncle’s tongue has been blackened with the stories he writes even though his library is a place of truth (in the same way the serpent brought truth in The Garden, etc.

It’s one of those movies that – like the best thrillers- makes more and more sense to the viewers (as susceptible to seduction as any one of the characters) the more privy they are to the layers of deceit that, like Hideko’s garments, are slowly removed, eventually revealing all.

This is certainly a “see it again” movie. Now armed with the knowledge of the end, and of Park’s sleight of hand’s deceptions of surface, there is so much more to be seen. Park’s production designs and clever symbols (Hideko lives in a home that’s part Japanese, like the colonial masters from whom, like her, the Koreans sought liberation, and part Western, like the story’s creator) are so overwhelming, that I’m sure I must have missed, and will now hopefully see with new eyes more of the director’s multiple signs and suggestions, all guiding (seducing?) me to his final vision of love, deception, seduction and money…

life’s four verities?

 

THE HANDMAIDEN. Dir: Park Chan-woo (“Stoker”, “Oldboy”). With: Kim Min-Lee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Tae-ri. Writer: Sarah Waters (from her novel), Jeong Seo-kyeong & Park Chan-woo. Production designer: Ryu Seong-hie. Cinematographer: Chung Chung-hoon

 

 

GET OUT****Something New This Way Comes


“GET OUT” – SCARY…hypnotic- makes for mesmerizing viewing. It’s one of those movies whose clever writing and meticulous direction seduces you away from what seems like an everyday, ordinary boy/girl romance into a world so bizarre you view it through unblinking, horrified eyes.

Writer/first time Director Jordan Peele signals from the very start that things aren’t going to end well. The movie begins at night with a black young man who has lost his way and has found himself in a dimly lit, tree-lined, affluent (for that, read, white) neighborhood. When a car arrives and slowly begins to trail him, you’d be right to be apprehensive.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya from “Sicario”) and Rose (the all-American Allison Williams) are the young, happy, flirtatious couple. They’re off for him to meet her folks (in their large, elegant, isolated home). She reassures him that the fact that he’s black (she’s white) is no biggie. Dr. and Mrs. Armitage (Bradley Whitfield and Katherine Keener), her parents, voted twice for Obama and would have voted for him again. They’re welcoming enough, though he’s a bit unnerved by the (all black) staff, who greet him with broad smiles and dull vacant eyes. A slightly deranged brother (Caleb Jones) turns up and wants to wrestle; and the following day, a queue of limos arrive, bearing their wealthy white passengers. It’s the Armitage’s annual get together, which Rose claims to have forgotten about.

Chris, much to his consternation, is clearly the centre of attention (and is constantly reassured of the guests’ liberal creds: one guest boasts of having met Tiger Woods, another is fascinated by just how strong and firm he is; one asks him whether it’s better to be black ‘these days’). And we’ve clearly journeyed not just from city to country, but to the world of “Rosemary’s Baby”.

Soon enough, the initial slow drip of warning signs becomes a waterfall. These aren’t simply super rich white folks self consciously aware of a black man in their midst. There’s something amiss. Nothing here feels right. Get out now. Run. As he tries to figure out just what’s amiss, he isn’t even aware that one of those creepy white folks has ‘won’ him in a Bingo game. Just what do you do with a young, strong, black man? What the host (a neurologist) wants to do to him….that beggars description.

This is a movie with a B-movie format cleverly concealing A-movie insights. It strips away (bloodily) the well-heeled veneer of polite, white, some of my best friends are black, liberalism to reveal a darkness (a mix of hate confused with the envy of the black ‘super masculine menial’) far deeper than mere prejudice or hypocrisy. And, along with the always surprising, never clichéd score from first timer, Michael Abels, Director Peele keeps you suspended between laughter, outrage and shock horror. It’s a difficult balancing act that he pulls off with aplomb.

Daniel Kaluuya brings an engaging sympathetic performance. He’s without question, the good guy. But his Chris wasn’t markedly different from his character in “Sicario”. Allison Williams’ performance however is one to take note of. Her Jeckyll and Hyde character is a treat.

More than this, there’s something of historical significance at work here. It’s a first time outing for three new black movie talents: the director, the composer and the special effects artist. Not too long ago we were treated to the brilliance of another black directorial newcomer: Barry Jenkins of “Moonlight”. This is a good trend. Peele and Jenkins along with the likes of Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) and Julia Ducournau (“Raw”) begin to feel like a trend. May we be entering into a new (brash, young, challenging, not yet given over to commercial annihilation) era of filmmaking?

GET OUT. Dir: Jason Peele. Writer: Jason Peele. With: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitfield, Katherine Keener. Composer: Michael Abels. Cinematography: Toby Oliver

 

GHOST IN THE SHELL** Shell Game


Scarlett Johnson is Major, a cyber enhanced soldier ‘controlled’ by a human brain; one that has been altered by implanted memories (and regular doses of ‘medication’) so as to eradicate all traces – all ghosts – of her actual humanity. This is not an A.I that has achieved the singularity (consciousness), but a human who has been embedded into a robot. She’s an evolved version of Robocop.

The conceit that drives the story is Major’s intuition, fueled by dreams of a burning pagoda, that she isn’t who they (shady corporate villains) make her out to be. If she can only identify who she was before she became this hacked, carefully controlled consciousness, she can potentially free her ghost trapped within her shell.

And what a shell it is. Beneath her battle gear, Major wears an invisibility cloak that’s a gossamer thin extra skin that renders her invisible to all, but almost – but for the absence of nipples – naked to viewers. Far more compelling than the Blade Runner inspired futurescape (a crowded, though lifeless place, reminiscent of The Sixth Element, but with the wet, watery feel and Sino-Japanese iconography of Blade Runner along with CGI-clever holograms) a near naked Scarlett Johansson makes for attentive viewing.

But if the shell’s great, the acting’s no more than a ghost of a performance.  Though this isn’t exactly a character driven story, Scarlett Johansson seems to have put so much emphasis into the robot side of her character that she managers to drag her way through the entire one hundred minutes of the movie with but one facial expression and no trace of intonation in her voice. Ms Johansson’s recent oeuvre has majored in the ‘non-human’. She’s an Avenger, a superhuman fighter (“Lucy”), a disembodied voice (“Her”) and an alien (“Under the Skin”). Her last decent movie was “Vicky, Christina, Barcelona” in 2008. Based on this sorry performance, either she simply decided to flaunt her very flauntable bod and take the money (she earned $10m for this); or she’s simply forgotten how to act…since her public probably isn’t all that interested in that side of her talent anyway.

Whatever.

This is a yawn-inducing movie. And no amount of production expense ($110m) can plaster over what is essentially a rag-tag plot strung together with the clunky, forgettable dialogue of three B movie writers and a director (Rupert Sanders) whose last big hit was that instant classic, “Snow White and the Huntsman”.

Nevertheless, along with production designer Jan Roelfs (whose achievements offer an interesting balance between the big production visionary sagas such as “47 Ronin” and “Alexander” and much more intimate fare: “Dark Blood”) he certainly works hard at giving the enterprise the visual gravitas of “The Matrix” series (which apparently borrowed heavily from the original animie version of “Ghost…”). And many of his set piece action sequences are visual delights.

But visual delights alone do not a tolerable movie make. Let’s just hope “Ghost in the Shell” isn’t a quality indicator of what the rest of this year’s summer blockbusters holds in store

GHOST IN THE SHELL. Dir: Rupert Sanders. With: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche. Cinematographer: Jess Hall (“Transcendence”). Production Designer: Jan Roelfs

 

CLAUDIA RANKINE: CITIZEN: An American Lyric. Poet of a people


CLAUDIA RANKINE’S EXTRAORDINARY book of poetry, “Citizen. An American Lyric” is a prose/poetry meditation on the state of modern American race relations in seven chapters. There are traces of Robert Lowell’s confessional style…but in a form that’s an exciting structural rethink on the nature of poetry; essentially each ‘stanza’ is a series of short prose paragraphs… anecdotes or a train of thought of events that took place…or could have; and the poet/persona’s accompanying ‘explanations’. They’re anecdotes that offer a perspective on the all-encompassing insidiousness of (American…but also quite easily English) race relations. And they communicate not only how black people are perceived by the white society (where, at its extremes, you’re either invisible or a proto criminal) but how this perception shapes the black person’s sense of self and identity…the sense of anger, outrage and personal inadequacy.

Rankine (or the poet persona of the book) is light-skinned enough to ‘pass for white’. She’s a chameleon, a camouflaged spy in enemy territory. But these aren’t poems of protest; while they principally focus on the dark nature of living in an indifferent, often unconsciously racist society, their insights into how memory, the past and perception shape your response to the world are human in color, not just black or white.

Invisibility or overt bias are easy enough to identify.
In the first poem/chapter, she recalls her younger self in one Sister Evelyn’s class:

        …and the girl sitting in the seat behind asks you to lean on the right during exams so she can copy what you have                           written…The girl is Catholic with waist-length brown hair…you never really speak except for the time…she tells you…you have features more like a white person. You assume… she feels better cheating from a white person”

We know the little girl in the seat behind (the poet can’t remember her name) is white from the description of her hair. And hair, is as much (more so?) a signifier of ethnicity as is skin color. This first visualization of the poet is via how she is perceived (features more like a white person). Neither of these two, presumably innocent, little kids make any effort to see beyond skin color. It’s as though from the get-go, black/white relationships have been poisoned. To the poet, her recognition as a person (not just a racial entity) is further compromised by the teacher, God’s representative, this Sister Evelyn:

       Sister Evelyn must think these two girls think a lot alike or she cares less about cheating and more about humiliation or she never actually saw you sitting there

Race as an unwanted cloak of invisibility!

In another poem, a man knocks over her son in the subway. He does not stop. It’s as though… [he] did not see him, has never seen him, has perhaps never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself. Or as she adds in another poem, …no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived” (President Obama will for a third of Americans always be perceived as some unwelcome African born interloper)

She quotes James Baldwin: Baldwin says skin color cannot be more important than the human being. Alas, not so in this lyric. So much for recognition…acknowledgement as a person.

Many of the stories she tells us are presented as distant memories, the poet having given herself the permission to … linger in a past stacked among your pillows
These are the multiple memories, multiple incidents, that shape her – one’s – public sense of self, her idea of how she is seen by her society. Perception is all.

She narrates one incident in which she has asked a friend to babysit her child while she’s out with another friend. Her neighbor calls in alarm. He’s watching…

         a menacing black guy casing both your homes. The guy…seems disturbed”. He reassures her that the guy is not her friend who he’s met, “…that nice young man. Anyway he wants you to know, he’s called the police… you hear the sirens…

Even to a ‘friendly’ neighbor, to eyes that view the world through the lenses of race, you’re either invisible (probably all races are guilty of this…it’s the “all Chinese look alike” syndrome) or a potential menace (only white people view non-white people like this).

As the poems (and her thinking) evolve, she is more than invisible, which at least results in a kind if passive indifference. Rather she, the black person, is what she terms “hypervisible”…which makes the invisibility ‘your’ fault:

       When a woman you work with calls you by the name of another woman you work with, it is too much of a cliché not to laugh out loud with the friend beside you who says, oh no she didn’t. Still, in the end, so what, who cares? She had a fifty- fifty chance of getting it right.
Yes, and in your mail the apology note appears referring to “our mistake”. Apparently, your own invisibility is the real problem causing her confusion…

 But, the poem shows, there is another, perhaps more pernicious layer of the racial perspective. It’s not the obvious one where the wrong words enter your day like a bad egg in your mouth.
Rather there is a layer of the racial perspective that shades into racism. It is often hidden behind walls of decorum, often unintended, and can slip suddenly, unbidden into sight. This may be racism at its most most hurtful, most revealing of its author who remains ever blissfully unaware that he or she is being racist:

       You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there

And:

       A woman you do not know wants to join you for lunch. You are visiting her campus…she immediately points out that she, her father, her grandfather, and you, all attended the same college. She wanted her son to go there as well, but because of affirmative action or minority something- she is not sure what they’re calling it these days and weren’t they supposed to get rid of it? – her son wasn’t accepted…The exchange, in effect, ends your lunch. The salads arrive

The poet tries to rationalize and find a reasonable framework for these experiences; she quotes…

        A friend who argues that Americans battle between the ‘historical self’ and the ‘self self’… you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self…arrive with the full force of your American positioning. Then you are standing face-to-face in seconds that wipe the affable smiles right from your mouths…And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant

 These so effortlessly narrated anecdotes are all remembrances of things past. And therein lie their sting. That past stacked among your pillows carries its dangers. She speaks of her fears that all these little incidents become locked in and coded on a cellular level. For …The past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow. These little incidents all add up. You cannot …learn to absorb the world…you can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you. The memories  add up to an angst, an anger.

       …the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color.

The flash point of these quotidian struggles against dehumanizations are given full vent in a vituperative poem centered on Serena Williams:

        Neither her father nor her mother nor her sister nor Jehovah her God nor NIKE camp could shield her ultimately from people who felt her black body didn’t belong on their court, in their world.”

 The poem documents with almost legal precision the deliberate bad calls from multiple umpires; one of whom, Mariana Alves, had to be

        …excused from officiating any more matches…after she made five bad calls against Serena” because “Serena’s black body…was getting in the way of Alves’s sight line.

Yes, the poet concludes, …the body has a memory…The body is a threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness.

Until all these bad calls, these coded expressions of the racist objection to this black woman in this white world, are unleashed into occasional vents of well-documented Serena fury. But the white world remains relentless in its refusal to comprehend the source of the anger. When, having learned how to contain or at least channel this anger, she won every match she played between the US Open and the year-end 2012 championship tournament, the media suggests

       She has grown up…as if responding to the injustice of racism is childish and her previous demonstration of emotion was  free-floating and detached from any external actions by others.

There’s a willful blindness to the way the white society, as if needing to shield itself from ‘anguish’ or guilt, responds to its own actions. In a poem about Mark Dugan, the innocent black youth gunned down by the police (and the catalyst for days of rioting that followed), Rankine observes:

       As the rioting and looting continued, government officials labeled the violent outbreak “opportunism” and “sheer                       criminality”, and the media picked up this language. Whatever the reason for the riots, images of the looters’ continued rampage eventually displaced the fact that an unarmed man was shot to death

At the center point of the book, the voice changes. The easy flow of bitter anecdotes morphs into a more troubled, almost arrhythmic syntax (…because words hang in the air like pollen, the throat closes). It’s as if these memories, these years of encrusted slights, rejections, dismissals can no longer be contained in the shaping form of narrative. The poetry becomes more abstract, darker, as if pushing itself deeper into the poet’s consciousness. Here is a nocturnal encounter with the police:

       In the darkened moment a body given blue light, a flashlight, enters with levity, with or without assumptions, with desire, the beating heart, disappointment, with desires –

        Stand where you are.

The vignette suggests the synapse between the action (the police car with its blue light) and the emotional codification of the action (the beating heart, disappointment, with desires). The need to contain the emotion, as Serena occasionally fails to do, is almost mandatory. For these emotions are the carriers of memory…and not just the memories of yesterday’s slights…darker historical memories which have shaped the racial consciousness. The poem ends with a dark reverie

       No, it’s a strange beach; each body is a strange beach, and if you let in the excess emotion you will recall the Atlantic Ocean breaking on our heads”

This is the memory of slavery, of the Atlantic crossing.

The second half of the book shifts from the itemisation of the mannered slights and dismissals to vignettes of physical violence. Centuries of aggression finally explode. A short poem that begins in a spirit of a Romantic idyll of a young boy walking in his school playground:

       As he walked across grass still green from summer walking out of the rain a step beyond into a piece of sky all day for him in this moment a shelter as he sat beneath the overhanging branches of the “white tree”…

But the grass still green soon becomes

       a darkening wave…a dawn sun punching through the blackness…” and the sheltering tree becomes a limb for a noose…” the rope looped around the overhanging branches of their tree.

The dawn sun turns into

       a fist punching through the blackness…forming knuckles as they pummeled the body being kicked and beaten until knocked          unconscious…

The violence so easily meted out is (like Mark Dugan) easily excused…

        boys will be boys being boys feeling their capacity…righting their wrongs in the violence of aggravated adolescence…”

The invisibility with which the book began when you were either not seen or seen merely as a color, now takes a turn for the worst. The refusal to see beyond race is also a refusal to differentiate. Black is simply black.

She describes one of the many meaningless arrests…
       

       Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. Then I just knew.

And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the                   description”

The need is not simply to arrest, but to humiliate:

       The charge the officer decided on was exhibition of speed. I was told, after the fingerprinting, to stand naked. I stood naked.  It was only then I was instructed to dress, to leave, to walk all those miles back home

So where does this all end? These centuries of hurt, these needs that branch accommodation with anger? How does the scarred body of one race find benediction, if that is what it seeks, in the uncomprehending gaze of the other? The American lyric can only shift from its rhythm of blues to a song of joy through

       …a share of all remembering… when …a measure of all memory is breath and to breathe you have to create a truce-

       a truce with the patience of a stethoscope

PERSONAL SHOPPER***Fancy Dress Ghost Story


WHEN YOU WANT something badly enough and your belief that that something is but a grasp away, then perhaps all signs point to that which is so obsessively desired. So it is with Maureen, (Kristen Stewart) who has persuaded herself and her friends that she’s a medium and who is convinced that her recently dead twin brother is reaching out to her from beyond the grave…scarily.

The scenes of Maureen wandering around in the large, dark lonely house in which her brother died are very, hold-your-breath spooky. Indeed, much of this movie grips one with the iciness of good old-fashioned horror.
Maureen is also a personal shopper for a haughty, bitchy woman, for whom money is no object. She is partly a messenger, ferrying bags of couture from exclusive ateliers in Paris and London to her boss, and partly also the curator to how her boss is seen by the public.

Director Olivier Assayas (“Clouds of Sils Maria” also with Kristin Stewart) offers us these two worlds: one world – the world of fashion obsessiveness- is one of pure external surface. What you see is shimmering glam. It isn’t what’s real. The other world is the invisible, purely internal one. And what you’re allowed to see may perhaps actually be real. Or at least Maureen thinks it is…to the extent that she can’t tell them apart.

The initial signs of what might be her brother’s spirit (whispy zephyrs of smoke and odd noises here and there) seem to harden into a disturbing series of texts that know where she is and that begin to commandeer her actions. Her need to get a sign is so strong that she seems to put her rational, sensible self on hold in the belief that the texts really are coming from ‘the beyond’ and as a result going, alone, to strange hotels at odd hours. This is less about communicating with the dead brother than being haunted by him.

Driven by the need to escape the texts, her personal haunting, and by her penchant for the forbidden, she violates her boss’ restrictions and begins to model her clothes. The sloppily dressed messenger girl morphs into an elegant, sexy ‘other’…as if this ‘other’ is just a disguise she can hide herself in. But these ephemeral surface changes are no barrier to the internal demons that haunt her and that ultimately result in a ghastly murder.

Kristin Stewart dominates the movie – is in every frame. And she’s watchably, seductively engaging. Her acting style works so hard at stripping away any thespian exaggeration that, when it doesn’t come off (as in “Certain Women”) it just feels flat. But here, she absolutely makes watchable what’s really an entirely silly movie.

The movie is atmospheric, often creepy, often best seen through narrowly parted fingers. But it’s a movie that’s just OK and which could actually have been quite good (It certainly isn’t worth all those five star reviews). “Personal Shopper” suffers from a few glaring problems: the characters are woefully underdeveloped, especially one central character who we glimpse only fleetingly, but who turns out (Shazam, gotcha!) into a major catalyst. It’s the “huh? Really?” factor. The idea of an obsession with the spiritual world is gripping. (After all, millions of Christians have intimate conversations with a God who’s ever interested in all their sordid little thoughts and activities). But this world is never presented with any hint of artistic ambiguity. Like any B movie horror, director Assayas offers the world of floating spirits and glasses that levitate at face value. These aren’t Maureen’s fantasies. We’re to take them as real phenomena. Assayas’ big potential revelation at the end (which modesty prevents me from spilling the beans on) is just a cheap cop out. And, the focus on Stewart so dominates the movie that we have to work too hard to salvage scraps of information to piece together the why’s and wherefore’s.

it’s just not worth all that effort.

 

PERSONAL SHOPPER. Dir (and writer): Oliver Assayas. With: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger. Cinematographer: Yorick Le Saux (“Clouds of Sils Maria”)

 

DEREK WALCOTT 1930-2017. The Master Remembered


DEREK WALCOTT: Poet of the exiles

London; and as I shelter from the not unusual rain, a stray image from Derek Walcott’s poetry drifts into focus. It comes from “In a Green Night”

 

Imprisoned within these wires of rain, I watch

This village stricken with a single street

(“Return to D’Ennery, Rain”, In A Green Night)

 

The rain that’s falling here is cold, dark and soundless…just a grey, unfriendly drizzle that carries no showers of blessing. And yet, my memory fabricates the sound no doubt many of us West Indians abroad can recall from the past when…

 

…branching light startles the hair of coconuts,                                  

and on the villas’ asphalt roofs, rain

resonates like pebbles in a pan

(“Hurucan”, The Fortunate Traveller)

 

Just as it’s likely that the poetry of Robert Burns holds an added layer of meaning to a Scottish reader, in the same way that Whitman’s songs of America may speak more profoundly to Americans (or at least those conscious of history) there is a different relationship between readers from the Caribbean and the poetry of Derek Walcott (who has just released another massive anthology of his work: The Poetry of Derek Walcott, 1948-2013). Familiarity adds edge

This essay seeks to re-introduce Walcott’s poetry through this lens of its enhanced emotional relevance to West Indians, particularly the large community living away from home. And though this ‘lens’ is by its nature a limiting profile of a poet, whose range is so vast, nevertheless, it may be interesting to re-evaluate his work from the viewpoint of how it has helped shape, codify and interpret for many of us, the experience of being West Indian on foreign shores..

For many of us who grew up around the same time as Walcott, his experiences paralleled ours: the need to escape and enter a life of voluntary exile, a sort of pilgrimage to the First World – driven by both a longing to be a part of the bigger world as well as a need to be free from the confines, the pettiness, the often squalid reality of small islands. But escape is also loss. The exile, the wanderer must find ways of accommodating both the excitement of discovery as well as the hostility of his new worlds all the while managing the nostalgia of absence. With time, the émigré learns to distil memory and experience into a sense of identity and which can shift from alienation to that of a fortunate traveller. This reader’s personal odyssey – not particularly distinct from that of the hundreds of thousands of other displaced West Indians – is reflected in the arc of the poet’s narrative over the sixty-five years he’s been revealing to us the world we live in.

Reading his first book, In A Green Night, when it was originally published, ushered many of us into a special club of readers. For the poet seemed to have pin-pointed with eerie precision our adolescents’ needs to leave (“imprisoned within…”) the limiting scope of the islands. At that age, there were worlds yet to be conquered:

I, with legs crossed along the daylight, watch

The variegated fists of clouds that gather over

The uncouth features of this, my prone island.

(“Prelude”, In A Green Night)

Then in “The Castaway”, the book that follows, the real outward momentum gathers force and we joined him in the urge for whatever ‘nourishment’ we were starving for that was ‘out there’ beyond the horizon:

The starved eye devours the seascape for the morsel

Of a sail.

The horizon threads it infinitely.

 

Action breeds frenzy. I lie

Sailing the ribbed shadow of a palm,

(“The Castaway”,The Castaway)

Though these lands held all that was dear to us, out there on that existential horizon was the challenge that didn’t exist in our limiting shores. ‘Out there’ was the future, the destination where our parents expected us to grow educationally and where we could learn to measure up to ‘the big boys’, the white boys:

I had nothing against which

to notch the growth of my work

but the horizon, no language

but the shallows in my long walk

 

home, so I shook all the help

my young right hand could use

from the sand-crusted kelp

of distant literatures

(“A Latin Primer”, The Arkansas Testament)

We were buoyed by the energy of exile with its romantic promises of freedom and intellectual fulfilment. But exile was also flight…flight from a West Indies that had already begun to disintegrate. In Tiepolo’s Hound, the protagonist, Pissarro, relives the spirit of The Castaway in his need to find some sort of salvation on a distant shore and flee what he sees as a crumbling hometown:

…abandoned forts

and ruined windmills and postage-stamp parks…

Perhaps he saw their emptiness in terror

of what provided nothing for his skill

 

until his very birthplace was an error

that only flight might change, and exile kill.

(“Chapter One”, Tiepolo’s Hound)

Walcott redefined how we viewed our drab, everyday surroundings, trapped as we were by “[its] ordinariness,/…the inertia that fills its exiles with horror” (“Port of Spain”, The Fortunate Traveller).

For indeed, we were not only journeying north to engage in the larger world but travelling away from a place of “urine stunted trees…” and “malarial light” (“Tales of the Islands, Chapter VII”, In A Green Night) with its “male, malodorous sea” (“Castialiane”, In A Green Night)

No matter the sordid reality, the exuberance of departure was always coloured by the romanticism of what was being left behind. With departure came the quiet potency of our collective sense of the homeland(s) that we, the young exiles, the second generation of the diaspora, would hold dear. The further we drifted away from its shores, the more magical appeared the place(s) we left behind; the reality of the “urine stunted trees” paled when compared with the remembered beauty of home:

This island is heaven – away from the dustblown blood of cities;

See the curve of the bay, watch the straggling flower, pretty is

The wing’d sound of trees, the sparse-powdered sky…

(“As John To Patmos”, In A Green Night)

 

The places even sounded magical:

Anguilla, Adina

Antigua, Cannelles,

Andreuille, all the l’s

Voyelles, of the liquid Antilles,

The names tremble like needles

Of anchored frigates,

Yachts tranquil as lilies,

In ports of calm coral

(“A Sea-Chantey”, In A Green Night)

 

As the poet begins his own journey and lifts away from home, he looks back and down from his ascending aircraft and sees the island grow small, literally and metaphorically. However, this is not Naipaul’s embittered escape from what he saw as the flotsam and jetsam of mimic-men cultures.

In a poem dedicated to “the exiled novelists” – guess who? – Walcott rails:

You spit on your people,

your people applaud,

your former oppressors

laurel you.

The thorns biting your forehead

are contempt

disguised as concern,

(“At Last”, Sea Grapes)

 

Rather, Walcott’s view is ennobled with sadness and a sense of imminent loss, even though he heads for his (true?) north

I watched the island narrowing the fine

writing of foam around the precipices then

the roads as small and casual as twine

thrown on its mountains; I watched till the plane

turned to the final north…

(“Chapter X; Tales of The Islands”, In A Green Night)

 

The image is repeated several years later, when this entire stanza is reprised as he reminisces in Another Life.

This dichotomy – of (positive) exile v (negative) escape, departure v flight, adventurer v refugee, the squalid v the magical – is a tension that dominates his early works…as much as it dominated the lives of us abroad, in our stiff clothes and cold confines. The urge to leave, to ship out, to board the schooner on the horizon was always balanced by that longing to stay, was always tempered by the anchor of home, even with the increasing realization that there was not much there worth staying for.

The initial image of the infinite horizon is one that is repeated in many guises throughout the poems. It is a horizon toward which we metaphorically shipped out and is highlighted by a series of boats, from anonymous schooners and distant sails to the aptly named schooner Flight to Achille’s fishing canoe in Omeros, In God We Troust (“Leave it! Is God’s spelling and mine”) to the ambiguous Bounty. This is the poet’s flotilla of signposts, each one signifying a stage in his circuitous odyssey, from flight to homecoming.

However, as departure hardened into exile, the seduction of the islands and the pull of home shrivelled, the euphoria of independence having coarsened into “the curse of government by race” fattened by corruption and politicians “Drained/of every sense but retching indignation” (“Party Night at the Hilton” Sea Grapes). We were also now bent on escaping the islands’ new cultural norm: of endemic, cynical kleptocracy. This was Walcott’s ironically named Star-Apple Kingdom, where:

One morning the Caribbean was cut up

by seven prime ministers who bought the sea in bolts –

one thousand miles of aquamarine with lace trimmings…

who sold it at a markup to the conglomerates,

…the rest was offered on trays to white cruise ships

taller than a post office

(“The Star-Apple Kingdom”, The Star Apple Kingdom)

 

No wonder…

…Our emerald sands

are stained with sewage from each tin-shacked Rome;

corruption, censorship, and arrogance

make exile seem a happier thought than home

(“The Hotel Normandy Pool”, The Fortunate Traveller)

 

The beauty he had so eulogized and celebrated was now overgrown by a tawdry, squalid modern Caribbean:

Year round, year round, we’ll ride

this treadmill whose frayed tide

fretted with mud

 

leaves our suburban shoreline littered

with rainbow muck, the afterbirth

of industry…

(“Ebb”, The Gulf)

The Gulf is poetry of a harder edge; it expresses the rage we all felt as the green night slipped away into crassness, where for those many who stayed behind there was often another kind of escape: an escape into narcotizing pretence: the life of masquerade. Walcott howls at the flippancy of the new identity being created, epitomized by the revelry of Carnival (“…a noise that fears everything” What The Twilight Says):

‘Join us’ they shout, ‘O God, child, you can’t dance?’

but somewhere in that whirlwind’s radiance

a child, rigged like a bat, collapses, sobbing…

 

Upon your penitential morning,

some skull must rub its memory with ashes,

some hand must crawl and recollect your rubbish,

someone must write your poems

 

And:

…After a while, this whole,

slow grinding circus doesn’t give a fuck.

There is nowhere to go. You’d better go.

(“Miramar”, The Gulf)

 

Thank God we’d left. But the thrill of escape and the excitement of arrival soon peeled back the darker reality of diaspora: the loneliness, the sense and shock of loss:

…the train

soon changed its poetry to the prose

of narrowing, pinched eyes you could not enter,

to the gas-ring, the ringing Students’ Centre,

to the soiled, icy sheet

(“Exile”, The Gulf)

 

For exile can sound more romantic than its reality. Arrival at any new destination shocks the spirit; and certainly for the warm-weather islander, what first shocks the body is the cold. Winters were long; summers never seemed to come. But somehow the misery was made not simply bearable, but almost heroic as we suffered with Walcott:

Through the wide, grey loft window,

I watched that winter morning, my first snow

crusting the sill, puzzle the black,

nuzzling Tom. Behind my back

a rime of crud glazed my cracked coffee-cup

(“A Village Life”, The Castaway)

 

Familiarity however does not breed acceptance. No matter how many years the exile spends away, no matter how in love with the adopted homeland, all this enduring wetness and cold is anathema to one’s sense of identity. In a much later book, Walcott writes:

…my soles stiffen with ice

Even through woolen socks; in the fenced back yard,

trees with clenched teeth endure the wind of February

(“North and South”, The Fortunate Traveller)

 

Even worse than the expected culture shock of the cold, alienating city, was the sudden, deeper shock of racism. London, Toronto, New York in the late 60’s took care of that:

…and when

I collect my change from a small-town pharmacy,

the cashier’s fingers still wince from my hand

as if it would singe hers – well, yes, je suis un singe,

(“North and South”, The Fortunate Traveller)

 

The personal experience he suffers is a microcosm of the broader xenophobia and distrust of the other, of those dark skins “taking our jobs”, “threatening our ways of life”. In “Midsummer, England” the poem shifts from a perspective of quintessential Englishness -“the sky-blue striped pavilions” of Henley and “fields trimmed by centuries of reticence”- to a more threatening one:

…the fear of darkness entering England’s vein,

the noble monuments pissed on by rain,

the imperial blood corrupted, the dark tide.

(“Midsummer, England”, Sea Grapes)

 

Add to this the reality of distance and time and suddenly you discover that the cold anomie of the big city has forced a kind of amnesia about what we’d left behind. Somehow, the longer we spent away, the less urgent was the angst of what was happening back home. For always there was the nostalgia for home, for the familiar, no matter how compromised it was by bad politics and corruption:

Better a jungle in the head

than rootless concrete.

Better to stand bewildered

by the fireflies’ crooked street;

 

winter lamps do not show

where the sidewalk is lost

not can these tongues of snow

speak for the Holy Ghost:

(“Pentecost”, The Arkansas Testament)

 

And yet, despite it all, accommodation followed. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it also leads the heart to surrender to the pull of adopted cultures:

...you had not come

to England; you were home.

 

Even her wretched weather

was poetry…

(“Exile”, The Gulf)

 

Eventually, what to us was initially exotic – winters, night without power-cuts, water that always flowed out of the tap, bookshops, art galleries – faded into the customary; the mark of foreign-ness softened enough to allow you to blend in and feel comfortable in dual cultures. Long years in New York, London, Toronto yielded passports and new shapes to identity. In one of his more autobiographical books, The Prodigal, Walcott explores the redefinition of his divided self

I lived in two villages: Greenwich and Gros Islet,

and loved both almost equally. One had the sea,

grey morning light along the waking water,

the other a great river, and if they asked

what country I was from I’d say, “The light

of that tree-lined sunrise down the Via Venetto”

(“Chapter 4”, The Prodigal)

 

It is impossible to love two cultures without being changed. Even if the heart of identity is essentially Trinidadian/West Indian, the embrace of ‘the other’ recalibrates – perhaps irrevocably – your sensibility, your reference points, your language:

And what was altered was something more profound

than geography, it was the self. It was vocabulary.

Now it was time for the white poem of winter,

when icicles lock the great bronze horse’s teeth.

(“Chapter 2”, The Prodigal)

 

It was at moments like this when these foreign shores grew welcoming and began to feel like a new home that you accepted the fact that home was no longer bound within a geography. Identity was where you found it.

The issue of identity and belonging is central to Derek Walcott’s poetry. But in this fractious flotilla of islands, from the strident and proud Jamaicans and Barbadians to the smug Trinidadians, and where so many either have, or long for that escape route of an American green card, not to mention passport, what really does ‘identity’ mean? As the poet asks…

What was the Caribbean? A green mantling

behind the Great House columns of Whitehall,

behind the Greek facades of Washington,

with bloated frogs squatting on lily pads

like islands, islands that coupled as sadly as turtles

engendering islets…

(“The Star-Apple Kingdom”, The Star-Apple Kingdom)

 

The nature of identity in his poetry realizes itself through a sense of race, history, language and landscape. Unlike some of his poet peers and the politics of race that often dominate the local conversation, Walcott eschews the claim to African-ness as a simplistic misstep. “What else was he,” he asks in Another Life, “ but a divided child?”

…they yearned for Africa,

they were lemmings drawn by magnetic memory

to an older death, to broader beaches

where the coughing of lions was dumbed by breakers.

(“The Star-Apple Kingdom”, The Star-Apple Kingdom)

 

“Once we have lost our wish to be white,” he writes in What The Twilight Says, his book of essays, “we develop a longing to be black, and those two may be different, but are still careers”. Race in the West Indies is a deeply complex matter: the easy certainty of black v white that still divides a ‘united’ States and lessens a ‘great’ Britain does not operate there. “Blackness” goes from ‘midnight’ through myriad colour nuances from high brown to (Walcott’s) red nigger through dougla (African and Indian), haquai (Chinese and African) to high brown, near white French creole, and for some of us, “Chinee Chinee never die, flat nose and chinky eye”.

It’s a matter to which Walcott returns time and again. In a duet of early poems, which sounds reminiscent of early Joyce, he notes:

I who am poisoned with the blood of both,

Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?

I who have cursed

The drunken officer of British rule, how choose

Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?

Betray them both, or give back what they give?

(“A Far Cry From Africa”, In A Green Night)

 

and also

My eyes burned from the ashen prose of Donne

 

Ablaze with rage, I thought

Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake,

And still the coal of my compassion fought:

That Albion too, was once

A colony like ours…

(“Ruins of a Great House”, In A Green Night)

 

But the ‘wrong race’ can also be a passport locally to exclusion and we are back to the feeling of being a castaway:

I had no nation now but the imagination.

After the white man, the niggers didn’t want me

when the power swing to their side

they first chain my hands and apologize, “History”;

they next said I wasn’t black enough for their pride

(“The Schooner, Flight”, The Star-Apple Kingdom)

 

And what of ‘history’? As the West Indian puzzles past race toward this locus of identity, the weights of myth-creating, self-enhancing history are not obviously there in what Walcott describes as these “history-orphaned islands” to anchor one in a sense of self. Where are the identity-defining battles? Where are the landmark achievements? We didn’t fight for independence – it was granted by a regime financially drained by war and exhausted of empires:

There’s nothing here

this early;

cold sand

cold churning ocean, the Atlantic,

no visible history

(“The Almond Trees”, The Castaway)

 

For most big city residents, history is all around – particularly in cities such as London, where you can’t help but be immersed in it. The link with the past is tangibly there, from the buildings and parks, to the commemorative statues and plaques that remind you of the many who shaped the texture of the country and the meaning of being British. But for the West Indian, the physical presence of history, of a past, is largely absent. There, many (most?) of the more beautiful, old edifices have long been torn down through our indifference, only to be replaced by crude, ugly concrete structures; and those few that remain, decaying and abandoned, are redolent of the smell of slavery, colonialism and white domination.

…The abandoned road runs

past huge rusting cauldrons, vats for boiling the sugar,

 

and blackened pillars. These are the only ruins

left here by history. If history is what they are.

(“Chapter IV”, Omeros)

Even the region’s early art, dominated by the etchings and water-colours of genteel artists such as Cazabon, is an art of the gracefully pastoral; one that veers away from harsher, less scenic realities. The real presence of the past simply hovers at the edges:

…in snaps

of fine old colonial families, curled at the edge

not from age or from fire or the chemicals, no, not at all,

but because, off at its edges, innocently excluded

stood the groom, the cattle boy, the housemaid, the gardeners,

the tenants, the good Negroes down in the village,

their mouths in the locked jaw of a silent scream

(“The Star-Apple Kingdom”, The Star-Apple Kingdom)

 

So, most of us grew up without the presence of history that many people simply take for granted. How do you feel a sense of identity with a country whose heroes are largely unknown and, unless they serve a clear political purpose, mainly uncelebrated; whose touch with the past stretches no further than a generation at most? We had journeyed to countries with a clear sense of a past, having left ones that exist only in a continuous present.

To many of us, the only ‘history’ that we knew starting in school was of Empire:

…think of the width its power could encompass:

“one-seventh of the globe”, we learned in class.

Its promontories, docks, its towers and minarets,

with the power that vanished as dew does from the grass

in the rising dawn of a sun that never sets

(“The Spectre of Empire”, White Egrets)

 

Although about fifty years ago, England had begun to shed itself of the costly burden of empire:

…All history

in a dusty Beefeater’s gin. We helped ourselves

to these green islands like olives from a saucer,

 

munched on the pith, then spat their sucked stones on a plate

(“Chapter V”, Omeros)

 

Yet its colonial dregs – the headmasters and civil servants – clutching their gins and gentility and the last remnants of power, still lingered around the pools of once exclusive clubs, wary of the nearing shadows of dark-skinned Independence. Their shrinking world struggled to stay time and fend off the future. And we, young masters of the as –yet- unsullied new West Indies looked upon these ghosts of empire with a mixture of awe and humour.

…Every one of them a liar

dyeing his roots, their irrepressible Cockney,

overdoing impatience. Clods from Lancashire

 

surprised by servants, outpricing their own value

and their red- kneed wives with accents like cutlery

spilled from a drawer.

(“Chapter V”, Omeros)

 

But this is no politician’s scorn. Even as he offers us this less than flattering image, the poet recognizes that what the colonial bureaucrats offered was a kind of commitment that would soon be lost

One day the Mafia

will spin these islands round like roulette. What use is

Dennis’ own devotion when their own ministers

 

cash in on casinos…

(“Chapter V”, Omeros)

 

We witnessed history give way to tourism

…I watched the doomed acres

where yet another luxury hotel will be built

with ordinary people fenced out. The new makers

of our history profit without guilt

… these new plantations

by the sea: a slavery without chains, with no blood spilt

(“The Acacia Trees”, White Egrets)

 

Perhaps because the West Indians’ sense of history lacked the public iconography of older cultures (after all slavery ended less than two hundred years ago and our memory of the pre-colonial Spaniards lives on only in the sometimes Hispanic, patois syntax of our dialect) we’ve come to depend more and be knitted together more by the private history of shared memories. In a very personal poem, Walcott describes a scene that, for people of a certain age, is one we all share. And, really, this shared past provides a more unifying perspective than any schoolboy’s learning of the Emancipation Act:

That evening I had walked the streets of the town

where I was born and grew up…

…I had peered into parlours

with half-closed jalousies, at the dim furniture,

Morris chairs, a center table with wax flowers

and the lithograph of Christ of the Sacred Heart

vendors still selling to the empty streets-

sweets, nuts, sodden chocolates, nut cakes, mints.

(“The Light of the World”, The Arkansas Testament)
History was rooted in growing up with the same stories. In a trio of poems from The Arkansas Testament, Walcott conjures up the folk imagination where “Every ceremony commenced/in the troughs, in the middens, at the daybreak and the daydark funerals/attended by crabs…” (“Gros-Ilet”). Here, he pulls out of our collective memory the stories we all grew up with and feared in the dark:

The gens-gangée kicks off her wrinkled skin.

Clap her soul in a jar! The half-man wolf

Can trot with bending elbows, rise and grin

In lockjawed lycantropia.

(“White Magic”, The Arkansas testament)

 

History lies also in our language. The (British) West Indian oral tradition is a weave of epochs: it combines, as noted above, the syntax and patois of the long past, pre-Colonial Spanish occupation; the tense structures and vocabulary the slaves brought with them from West Africa; and words and phrases from the waves of Indian immigration – all grafted into an English that seemed stuck in the eighteenth century. This was the palette the poet found as he sought to find a unique idiom, informed by the lineage of the ‘mother tongue’ but seasoned in the rhythms of the place. More so than most of his peers, Walcott is intensely self- conscious about his search for the kinds of words and cadences that can accurately reflect the integrity of his artistic voyage. You often sense that he feels the responsibility of developing a style that can articulate the West Indian experience, and that his search is not only for himself but for us all. He is giving us a voice:

My race began as the sea began,

with no nouns and with no horizon,

with pebbles under my tongue…

(“Names”, Sea Grapes)

 

In some of his earlier work (mainly In A Green Night), the language sometimes sounds arch, overly poetic. This quickly dissipates as, with The Castaway, he settles into a style that becomes distinct to him and the sensitivity he offers us. It was a long cry from the early West Indian poets, struggling to shake off the weight of the English rhyming poetry we were taught at school and seek some sort of authenticity. The first break with the English tradition (around the 1920’s) had come via experimentations with dialect by a Barbadian policeman, Edward Cordle, who started publishing poetry in the local newspaper. This was quite a revolution; not only were his stories stridently relevant (he wrote of poverty and suffering), but also the idea of writing in the –debased- idiom of everyday life was shocking. Most poetry written in the West Indies at the time was in a voice that smelt of Wordsworth and the Romantics and bore no relevance to the life lived; more the black man’s yearning for white colonial acceptance.

Walcott’s search for his authentic idiom had to find the balance between the potentially dead end of dialect and a language that could contain the complexity of his consciousness and could ‘feel right’. His own shift into dialect is occasional, judicious and precise: it is the style he used for drama and, often, irony.

His initial attempts at dialect feel indulgent and false, as if he felt pushed by the intellectual politics at the time to experiment in this idiom:

Man, I suck me tooth when I hear

How dem croptime fiddlers lie,

And de wailing, kiss-me-arse flutes

That bring water to me eye!

(“Parang”, In A Green Night)

 

But he’s ever wary of the politicization of style. In “What the Twilight Says” he notes, “…Carnival was as meaningless as the art of the actor confined to mimicry. And now the intellectuals, courting and fearing the mass, found values in it that they had formerly despised. The apotheosized the folk form, insisting that calypsos were poems.” And again, “Our bodies think in one language and move in another, yet it should have become clear, even to our newest hybrid, the black critic who accuse poets of betraying dialect, that the language of exigesis is English, that the manic absurdity would be to give up thought because it was white.”

As the poetry evolves, his dialect weans away these distractions and its use becomes occasional, judicious and precise: it is the style he used for drama and, often, irony. He begins to use the oral tradition very much as the –often oracular- voice of a number of ‘characters’. The personae of his few dialect poems are careful constructs, such as the mordant observer of “The Spoiler’s Return” masking his anger with the wit of Calypso ‘picong’:

Is Carnival, straight Carnival that’s all,

the beat is base, the melody bohbol,

all Port of Spain is a twelve-thirty show,

some playing Kojak, some Fidel Castro…

 

all Frederick Street stinking like a closed drain

Hell is a city much like Port of Spain

(“The Spoiler’s Return”, The Fortunate Traveller)

 

The list of dramatis personae in his works is long and multiple characters emerge (Walcott the poet and Walcott the dramatist often shade one into the other). And, true to the dramatist’s craft, he gives them all quite distinct, authentic voices. But their concerns and the issues they wrestle with are, for the poet, familiar tropes. Shabine, the exile, the outsider, the street-wise intellectual is the embodiment of all the resentments, anger and frustrations of a generation: poor, black and ignored by the curve of history bent on ostracizing its citizens. For Shabine, the ex-colonial, to make sense of his world, of a place in history (“I met History one, but he ain’t recognize me”) he must find the right words (“that’s all them bastards have left us: words”):

…we live like our names and you would have

to be colonial to know the difference,

to know the pain of history words contain,

to love those trees with an inferior love,

and to believe: “Those casuarinas bend

like cypresses, their hair hangs down in rain

like sailors’ wives. They’re classic trees, and we,

if we live like the names our masters please,

by careful mimicry might become men”

(“The Schooner Flight”, The Star Apple Kingdom)

 

Shabine’s heroism lies in his recognition of this (we young colonials knew Wordsworth and Keats; but no West Indian poetry found its way into our English curriculum) and the need to find and forge a language that can frame a perspective:

…When I write

this poem, each phrase go be soaked in salt;

I go draw and knot each line as tight

as ropes in the rigging; in simple speech

my common language go be the wind,

my pages the sails of the schooner Flight

(“The Schooner Flight”, The Star-Apple Kingdom)

 

Walcott’s self-conscious search for words was not merely a literary exercise. The exile soon finds that, even when the vocabulary and sentence construction of his birth are hidden away, his accent is pigeon-holed. It’s exotic, possibly difficult to understand, connotative of leisure and indolence; not so much ode to a skylark as ode to skylarking. And as the years draw on, from life as a student to life as an adult, the voice becomes ever-shifting: a voice for home, a voice for ‘back home’ and a voice to be understood and taken seriously:

I must put the cold small pebbles from the spring

upon my tongue to learn her language,

to talk like birch or aspen confidently.

(“Upstate”, The Fortunate Traveller)

 

The fortunate traveller is one iteration of the poet as discoverer – the modern Crusoe, forging a language to suit the place:

Like those plain iron tools he salvages

                  from shipwreck, hewing a prose

as odorous as raw wood to the adze

                  out of such timbers

came our first book, our profane Genesis

(”Crusoe’s Journal”, The Castaway)

 

In the autobiographical Another Life, he draws our attention to the moment of recognition when he had finally pushed himself toward a language that sparkled with the accuracy he sought:

I watched the vowels curl from the tongue of the carpenter’s plane:

resinous, fragrant,

labials of our forests

over the plain wood

(“Chapter 12”, Another Life)

 

For the poet, authenticity is all. And Walcott weaves together a sense of celebratory elation and a sense of place with its articulation:

A panel of sunrise

on a hillside shop

gave these stanzas

their stilted shape.

 

If my craft is blest;

If this hand is as

accurate, as honest

as their carpenter’s.

 

every frame, intent

on its angles, would

echo this settlement

of unpainted wood

(“Cul de Sac Valley”, The Arkansas Testament)

 

Indeed, it is within this (mythic) landscape that fragments of our sense of identity lie. Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory looks at the role of our surroundings as a fundamental cultural factor in the creation of myth. Indeed, landscape is memory and Walcott’s summoning of the landscape not only brings we exiles closer to the home we left, but underlines the power of the physicality of the place – just one thread in the weave of elements that knit the patterns of cultural identity.

By and large, Walcott’s poetry is structured around repeated patterns: they begin with clear precise images whose philosophical meaning flowers as the poem meanders through its field of stanzas. The result is that there emerges from the range of his works a very tangible sense of the landscapes of the Caribbean. There’s almost a slide-show that transports the reader from the sea where “eels sign their names along the clear bottomed sand” to the “moonlit sickle shore[s]” to the rainforests of “garrulous waterfalls” and “blue, tacit mountains” over the “pastures of bananas” to the hot cities. We experience the key duality of the West Indian climate – hot sun and drenching rain.

For unlike the sweet summers of London or New York, so eagerly anticipated and enjoyed in people-watching outdoor cafes and shady gardens, the sun in the West Indies strikes a different pose:

The feel of the village in the afternoon heat, a torpor

that stuns chickens, that makes stones wish they could hide

from the sun at two, when to cross from door to door

is an expedition, when palm trees and almond hang their head

in dusty weariness…

(“Chapter 12; Part Two”, The Bounty)

 

Even the smells are there to startle the memory:

 

Night, our black summer simplifies her smells

into a village; she assumes the impenetrable

 

musk of the Negro, grows secret as sweat,

her alleys odorous with shucked oyster shells,

(“Nights in the Gardens of Port of Spain”, The Castaway)

 

For the reader as exile, here is poetry that re-crystallizes memories long fragmented, lost to time, ennobled now within the framework of the poet’s visual elation (“One the desperate memory fastens on” The Bounty.)

And so, vague memories of walking through the bush and hearing birdsong is transformed to “[walking] through a thickness pinned with birds” (“II. The Bush” The Gulf) and (from “The Walk” ,The Gulf), I can hear the rain as it cools a parched earth:

….a clump of bamboos whose clenched

fist loosens its flowers, a track

that hisses through the rain drenched

grove…

 

In the end, the exile, though ever-conscious of the rot that’s set in back home, somehow has to have the heart to find his way back to the qualities that made him who he is. In the end, the reasons for escape cannot sunder the love of the place of birth, whose hold is part of one’s sense of self. Walcott captures this longing in his later books, which can be seen as a poetry of homecoming. This is “Odysseus/home-bound on the Aegean” (“Sea Grapes”, Sea Grapes):

…Watch how spray will burst

like a cat scrambling up the side of a wall,

gripping, sliding, surrendering: how, at first,

its claws hook then slip with a quickening fall

to the lace-rocked foam. That is the heart, coming home,

trying to fasten on everything it moved from,

how salted things only increase its thirst.

(“Chapter Two”, White Egrets)

 

We see the change most clearly in The Bounty, his book of memories that marks the turning point in his journey. From this point, Odysseus returns home. The wandering exile feels reclaimed by the land. His life away becomes “the pain of exile”. And, as his heart continues to force him back, his life in a foreign country loses the light of its promise. The exile simply becomes the stranger; the displaced man:

…this was not his climate or people, no season

as depleting as this, and beyond this there was the sea

and the unrelenting mercy of light, a window in the prison

his mind had become;

(“Six Fictions”, The Bounty)

 

In “Christmas Eve”, that time when the pull of home is strongest, the poet gives in to forces he claims not to understand. As ever in his poetry, we experience the contradiction between what propels him and keeps him away and the stronger gravitational pull bearing him back South:

Can you genuinely claim these, and do they reclaim you

from your possible margin of disdain, of occasional escape:

the dusk in the orange yard of the shacks, the waxen blue-

green of breadfruit leaves, the first bulb in the kitchens – shape

and shadows so familiar…

Yes they reclaim you in a way you need not understand

(“Christmas Eve”, The Bounty)

 

Even to the many of us who never made that returning, re-immigrating journey, the pull is the same:

…the frogs croak

behind fences, the dogs bark at ghosts, and certainties

settle in the sky, the stars that are no longer questions.

Yes, they reclaim you in a way you need not understand:

candles that never gutter and go out in the breeze

(“Parang”, The Bounty)

 

(One wonders whether Walcott’s image of the endurance of love : “candles that never gutter…” is a deliberate pop reference to Elton John’s “candle in the wind”)

Odysseus, after all those years of wandering is borne back by the tide of sentiment deeper than all the concerns that keep us – the exiles – away. The liberating horizon with its promise of freedoms becomes simply “the edge of the sea”. The schooner Flight may bear us away, but the ties, the ties, they keep us there; they bring the benedictions of acceptance:

The sea-canes by the cliff flash green and silver

they were the seraph lances of my faith

but out of what is lost grows something stronger

 

that has the rational radiance of stone,

enduring moonlight, further than despair,

strong as the wind, that through dividing canes

 

brings those we love before us, as they were,

with faults and all, not nobler, just there.

(“Sea Canes”, Sea Grapes)

 

The sense of homecoming – either physical (Walcott has indeed returned home to live in St Lucia) or (for those of us the permanent exiles) spiritual – brings with it a kind of optimism. But returning is not a recapture of some lost magic. The poet is quite straightforward that the return to the country is no amnesiac retreat to a glorified past.

The house where we used to live,

its vine-twisted verandah gone,

is a printery now; not a leaf

will curl from its pillars again

(“The Lighthouse”, In A Green Night)

 

Not only that, but after these years of travel, the identity of the returning prodigal now embraces more than his Caribbean roots. So too do we of the diaspora add another meaning to the divided self, for like the poet, after long years in the embrace of another culture, the tendrils of roots burrow into another homeland. The horizon changes. The starved eye no longer sits sailing the ribbed shadow of a palm:

Perhaps it exists on only one horizon –

one with windmills and belfries with questioning cranes,

meadows with chattering aspens, a temperate zone,

equestrian statues and water-braiding fountains

This is poetry’s weather, this is its true home,

Not where palms applaud themselves and sails dance

In mindless delight and gulls race the foam.

(“Chapter 11”, White Egrets)

 

This is part – half- of the picture: the prodigal’s accommodating heart has not opted out for the distant homeland. The love of the adopted place is real and sound but can never replace or compromise where the heart was raised. There may have been exile and flight, but the anchor of the islands can never loosen:

…This small place produces

nothing but beauty: the wind-warped trees, the breakers

on the Dennery cliffs, and the wild light that loosens

a galloping mare on the plain of Vieuxfort make us

merely receiving vessels of each day’s grace,

light simplifies us whatever our race or gifts.

I’m content as Kavanagh with his few acres:

for my heart to be torn to shreds like the sea’s lace,

to see how its wings catch colour when a gull lifts.

(”The Lost Empire”, White Egrets)