IN THIS FRIGHTENING look at the (parlous) state of American democracy, authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt examine those critical factors that they conclude have been common to all modern autocratic states.

Since the end of the Cold War, they note, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals but by elected governments themselves. Elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Venezuela, Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Ukraine.
“Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box”. Often they note, there’s no single moment – no coup, suspension of the constitution etc – that may set off society’s alarm bells. Democracy’s erosion is imperceptible.

They layer this framework on the present US administration and wonder: how close is the US to those other autocratic states? What happened that the country should be where it now is? And they hazard a guess, based on their reading of other countries, where the road ahead lies.

The framework they use (to identify the typical modus operandi of autocrats) was first mapped out by Juan Linz in his seminal book of 1978, “The Breakdown Of Democratic Regimes”. Building on Linz’ work, they developed a set of four warning signs.

(1) The rejection of democratic rules of the game, such as neutralizing or cancelling elections or the constitution, banning or restricting basic civil rights (such as the right to vote) or undermining the legitimacy of elections by refusing to accept credible electoral results
(2) Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents… by baselessly branding them as criminals, foreign agents or threats to national security
(3) Toleration or encouragement of violence…thru ties to armed gangs, the encouragement of mob attacks on opponents, the tactic endorsement of violence by their supporters and their approval or praise of other political violence in other countries
(4) Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents including the media: as seen thru examples such as the expansion of libel or defamation laws, threats and punitive actions against rival parties, civil society or the media, and the praise of other government’s repressive measures.

It’s not a stretch to see how easily Trump fits the playbill. Even before his inauguration, he tested positive on all four measures:

  • A weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game (when he questioned the legitimacy of the electoral process and even suggested he might not accept the results of the election)
  • He consistently insisted that there would be voter fraud and that millions of illegal immigrants and dead people would be mobilized to vote for Hillary Clinton (so much so that before the election, 73% of Republicans believed that the election could be stolen from him.)
  • He denied the legitimacy of his opponents, first with Obama and his “birther” campaign and then with Clinton who he branded a criminal (with his rally cry of “Lock her up”)
  • Like the Blackshirts in Italy and the Brownshirts in Germany, he tolerated and encouraged violence (as he shouted at one of his rallies, “If you see anybody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them would ya…Just knock the hell out of them. I promise you I will pay the legal fees.”) He even issued a veiled endorsement of violence against Hillary Clinton when he said, “if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks…Although the Second Amendment people – maybe there is, I don’t know”
  • The final warning sign (apart from his praise of other dictators such as Putin and Duterte) was his readiness to curtail the civil liberties of rivals and critics, such as his promise to arrange for a special prosecutor to investigate and jail Hillary after the election and his threat to punish unfriendly media (“among the most dishonest group of people I’ve ever met”) by opening up the libel laws to bankrupt them.

So what happened? How did a clearly visible autocrat make it all the way to the elections and then the Presidency? Where did the party fail in its traditional role as a steward of democracy?

Democracy, they note, is, in every country, heavily dependent for its continuity on “Gatekeeping institutions” which are aimed at eliminating dictator-leaning candidates at an early stage. These are supported by a series of core shared norms and codes of behavior…what they call “the guardrails”. These, more than constitutions are democracy’s foundations.

Trump was the most successful but not the first extremist to woo and win voters’ afffections.

Such figures have long dotted the landscape of American politics. Men such as Charles Coughlin, an anti-Semitic Catholic priest; Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long (whose intimidation and bribery of the state’s legislature, the press and anyone who opposed him saw him regarded as “the first true dictator out of American soil”); billionaire Henry Forde, widely admired as a plain spoken businessman and who the Nazi government had awarded with the Grand Cross of the German Eagle; all American hero Charles Lindbergh, an advocate of racial purity (who was also awarded a Nazi Medal of Honor…by Herman Goring); Senator Joseph McCarthy whose blacklisting, censorship and book banning, all in the name of protecting America, earned him the approval of nearly half of the electorate; and governor George Wallace who mixed racism with populist appeals to working class whites’ sense of victimhood and economic anger.
None of these men made it through the filter of their party’s powerful insiders and nomination systems.

This changed after the debacle of the Democratic Convention in Chicago and the nomination of Hubert Humphrey in 1968. What emerged was a system of binding presidential primaries (and the Democrats’ undemocratic dependence on “superdelegates”). Though these primaries ostensibly gave the power to party members, delegates depended on their passage through the “invisible primary” (i.e the insider allies of donors, newspaper editors, interest groups, state-level politicians etc) to be considered for nomination. This system successfully kept out the crazies (such as Pat Robinson, Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes). But the dramatic increase in the availability of outside money and the explosion of alternative media, along with the gung-ho radicalism of Fox News, tilted the scales away from ‘party-blessed’ establishment politicians to the rich, the famous and the extreme. Witness the candidacies of fringe politicians such as Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain (The Godfather Pizza CEO) and Bernie Sanders. Sanders was cut off at the knees by Democratic insiders. But the Republican party elders were helpless in blocking the unendorsed outsider Donald Trump.

The long successful barrier of Gatekeeping Institutions had failed. Mainstream politicians compounded this institutional failure by doing nothing. Key Republicans sat back and watched with horror as Trump shredded the usual norms…but Party ideology trumped any fidelity to the idea of American democracy. This did not have to be the case. Levitsky and Ziblatt point to other similarly endangered democracies when politicians put the rule of democracy above that of party politics. For example in 2016, Austrian conservatives backed the Green Party candidate to block the election of the far right (led by Norbert Hofer); in France, Francois Fillon urged his members to vote for Emmanuel Macron to keep Marine Le Pen out etc.

But in the US, there was a “collective abdication”. Some Republican leaders refused to endorse Trump. But none were prepared to endorse Hillary. They all simply fell in line, based on the misguided belief that the authoritarian could be controlled and on an “ideological collusion”: the rationalization that the authoritarian’s agenda sufficiently overlapped with the party’s values.

If the Party’s Gatekeeping role failed, what of the broader guardrails that protect democracy? These the book notes are:

  • mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals;
  • and forbearance or the understanding that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives.

These the authors contend are the only real restraints that prohibit autocrats from using the very programs that define democracy against it.

For constitutions and the safeguards they offer, though lofty, tend to be vague, ambiguous and can easily, legally be side stepped. The clearest examples are those many, mainly Latin American, countries whose Constitutions and even electoral systems are modeled, almost to the word, on the US constitution and model. Such diligence did not prevent electoral fraud in Argentina in 1930 and 1943, or President Marcos’ use of martial law or Brazil’s Gertulio Vargas’ legal maneuvers to stay in power.
Strong democracies depend on these strong, often unwritten democratic norms of mutual toleration and forbearance. When these norms breakdown, so does democracy.

In every case of democratic breakdown – from Franco, Hitler and Mussolini to Marcos, Pinochet, Putin, Chavez and Erdogan- the justification for the consolidation of power has been accomplished by the replacement of mutual toleration for a norm where opponents are labeled as existential threats.

Similarly, the second critical guardrail of institutional forbearance or “the action of restraining from exercising a legal right” collapses when parties engage in “constitutional hardball”… when the intent is to permanently defeat one’s partisan rivals – no matter the effect on democracy.

When Presidents and parties view (elected) opponents as mortal enemies; when politics becomes a zero sum game (where for one side to win the other must lose), then the mutual toleration, respect and forbearance necessary for the compromises of the political process turn politics into warfare.

In recent times, Nixon never embraced norms of mutual toleration. He viewed sections of the public as opponents and the press as enemies…threats to the nation. He told his aid H. R. Haldeman, “We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy”. But then the guardrails held.

By the time US politics had reached the stage when in 2016, for the first time in US history, the Senate refused to even consider an elected president’s nominee for the Supreme Court, the guardrails had well and truly been dismantled.

The key point they note is that Trump’s autocratic tendencies found fertile ground in the no-holds-barred divisiveness of American politics where your opponent is your enemy and compromise is a dirty word. This divisiveness, a sharp tact away from the civility and mutual respect that tends to be the underpinning of democracies, was sharply escalated after Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America.

Gingrich exacerbated the already increasingly hostile nature of US political debate to the level of virulent partisanship that defines its present war-like norm.
“You are fighting a war. It is a war for power” he said. He questioned his Democratic rivals’ patriotism and accused them of trying to “destroy our country”. As House Speaker, his ideological aversion to compromise and his willingness to obstruct legislation spelt the end of that body’s traditional collegial combativeness.
Politics had become warfare; the use of the filibuster and later (in Bill Clinton’s case) impeachment and the debt limit had become weaponised.
This intense partisanship meant the beginning of government dysfunction.
And it escalated markedly under Obama’s presidency. Gingrich called him “the first Anti-American president”. Egged on by Fox News (whose “no compromise” views viciously attacked any moderate Republican) as well as by Trump and the Tea Party movement, 37% of Republicans believed that he was not born in the US.

Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude that the intensity of partisanship has meant that being a Democrat or Republican has become not just an affiliation but an identity. They identify that the seeds of this mutual distrust predate Gingrich. They point to the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Act. Their thesis is that until then both parties were “big tent” parties. They were divided on issues such as taxes, spending, government regulations etc. But they overlapped on the potentially explosive issue of race. Both parties contained factions that were for as well as against civil rights.

It was the Civil Rights Act that redefined the parties: Democrats became the party of civil rights and Republicans became the party of the (white) status quo. Conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans (who in the past were able to broker compromises) gradually disappeared. Add to this the huge influx of new Latino immigrants and the Democrats have become a party of ethnic minorities while the Republican Party has remained almost entirely a party of whites (90%).

The other issue that further sundered any overlapping of the parties was Roe v Wade. The Evangelicals, embraced by Reagan, flocked to the Republicans (76% identify as Republican) pushing that party to positions of anti-abortion, anti-gay Rights and support for school prayer…even as the Democrats have become an increasingly secular party.

The two parties are now deeply divided over race and religion – the two most deeply polarizing of issues…which tend to generate the greatest intolerance and hostility. From a Republican perspective, well aware of the growing percentage of non white voters, and aghast at the presence of a non white (and therefore not a real American) president, the need to “Take our Country Back” set the terrain for a populist to “Make America Great Again”, even if this meant (further) trampling on democratic norms.

They write, chillingly:
“If, twenty five years ago, someone had described to you country in which candidates threatened to lock up their rivals, political opponents accused the government of stealing the election or establishing a dictatorship, and parties used their legislative majorities to impeach presidents and steal Supreme Court seats, you might have thought of Ecuador or Romania. You probably would not have thought of the United States”

The authors note that Trump’s first year in power follows the archetype of power consolidation as evidenced by Chavez, Fujimori and Erdogan:

  • Capture the referees
  • Sideline the key players
  • Rewrite the rules to tilt the playing field against opponents.

He’s demonstrated striking hostility toward the referees – law enforcement, intelligence, ethics agencies and the courts by firing those who stood up to him (FBI Director Comey and US Attorney Preet Bharara), attacking them (He called the judge who ruled against his initial travel ban as a “so-called judge”) and even threatening to use the FBI to go after Democrats; or by simply bribing them (evidenced by his huge tax discounts to the powerful and wealthy, who can now shut up and count their cash)

He continues to try to sideline the free press by branding them “fake news”, “enemy of the American people”, pledging to “open up the libel laws” and “challenge the license” of NBC and other networks. In similar vein he’s tried to punish critics by withholding funding from “sanctuary cities”.

He’s created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity run by one Kris Kodach (described as America’s “premier advocate of vote suppression”). The aim ostensibly is to cut down on voting fraud (of which there’s none) but with the real mission of making it harder for low-income minority citizens to vote. The new laws which mandating strict voter ID’s favour whites five times more than blacks, and will in effect disenfranchise over 21 million Americans. To date fifteen states have adopted these laws.

Trump’s norm breaking has been breathtaking and groundbreaking.

  • Among these are the long-standing norms of separating private and public affairs, such as those governing nepotism and financial conflicts of interest.
  • He continues to question the integrity of the American electoral process (84% of Republicans believe “meaningful amount” of fraud has occurred)
  • Continues to attack Hillary Clinton and Obama
  • Brazenly lies (only 17% of his statements have been classified as true)
  • Has abandoned any presence of respect for the media (more than 50% of Republicans now favour shutting down critical publications)
  • And routinely bullies and insults anyone he chooses including foreign heads of (friendly) states.

So far, some of his more egregious anti-democratic attempts (such as packing the FBI with loyalists or blocking the Mueller investigation) have been thwarted. But the authors are concerned. Presently his popularity is very low. But with continued improvements of the already strong economy, this can quickly change. And should there be any crisis triggered by war or terrorism, Trump like every other authoritarian leader will exploit it fully, “using it to attack political opponents and restrict redoes Americans take for granted. In our view, this scenario represents the greatest danger facing American democracy today”

Chilling words indeed



This gallery contains 4 photos.

A hundred years after his birth, in 1869, almost every major city around the world celebrated the man who, at his peak, was the most famous man alive: Alexander von Humboldt. There were fireworks, street parades, speeches and festivities. He wasn’t a soldier, or a politician or an artist. The world was celebrating the anniversary […]

DEMOCRACY IN CHAINS. Nancy MacLean**** Absolutely compelling

NANCY MACLEAN’S BOOK, “Democracy in Chains” is a frightening look at the intellectual and ideological base of what she concludes is a long history by the Right to subvert democracy in the U.S.

The book argues that the recent antagonistic, self destructive politics of Washington – where cross-party compromises have been replaced by an ugly politics of obstruction (government shutdowns, the ideological rejection of anything Obama proposed etc.) and the consistent attacks on swaths of increasingly disenfranchised Americans – is the result of a party (the Republicans) co-opted by an ideological base controlled by the Koch brothers and intent on crippling the government. This, in the pursuit of unrestrained wealth, or “economic liberty” as they regard it. The “free” referred to in the U.S.’ boast that it’s “the Land of the free” to them, refers not to the idea freedom v slavery, but to the freedom to make as much money as possible without government interference [or what in the U.K. is called an “open economy”]. What we’re witnessing now, led by these brothers is, MacLean contends, a stealth take over of the Constitution…a Fifth Column* assault on democracy.

Taxation is nominally at the heart of it all [I am reminded of Trump’s boast that only fools pay taxes].
And ‘it’ – the battle lines – began some time ago, even before the ink on the Constitution was dry. For John Wendell Holmes Jr., taxes were, “the price we pay for civilization”. His opposition was John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina cotton planter, who saw taxation as a form of government-sanctioned theft. “A government based on the naked principle that the majority ought to govern” he wrote, was sure to filch other men’s property.

This line of thinking was codified and formulated into a strategic program by James Buchanan (whose career and thinking much of the book is about). Buchanan was a Nobel laureate, brilliant economist and academic (initially) at various universities, who helped legitimize the libertarian cause: a dream society where there were few rules to constrain how a man might get wealthy, and where there would be “great restraints on the government in asking for some part of that wealth, other than for the maintenance of order and military defense.”

Buchanan could not abide the idea that, through taxation, individuals of wealth had to pay for those public goods and social programs (schools, courses for black students, textbooks, medical care etc.) they had no personal say in approving. Why, he argued, should I have to pay for services that ‘they’ should be paying for themselves? Fellow economist, Milton Freedman, went one step further. “The full burden of education should be borne by the patents of children”, not the state, he argued. “That would promote personal responsibility…through birth control”

Buchanan’s papers and books were the ones that led the chorus which divided the population into the “takers” v the “makers”; between the hardworking people who are forced to pay taxes and the layabouts who spent them; or as the Tea Party ideologues refer to them, the “moocher class”…part of the “parasite economy”. [The present Conservative party in the U.K. – who seems to have swallowed Buchanan’s thinking entirely – divides their electorate similarly: between the “strivers” and the “shirkers”].

Buchanan amplified this ideological perspective in an (quasi) economics theory (he offered no tangible proof for these theories) in his highly lauded book, “The Calculus of Consent”. There he ‘proved’ that majority voting favored politicians who would keep spending (and taxing) in order to ensure reelection. This, he wrote, held down private capital accumulation and therefore the overall economy. And since the problem was systemic, the only brake on such willy-nilly public spending was a curtailment of majority rule.

Democracy as we know it was counterproductive to the accumulation of capital. As John C. Calhoun noted a hundred years before: “Democracy is a threat to economic liberty”.

The problem Buchanan faced was that of execution. How could an academic ensure that his ideas saw the light of day? His initial champions – politicians such as George Wallace and Barry Goldwater (the man who said, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”) – proved useless. They were defeated by voters who actually benefitted from these programs. The same voters who Buchanan felt voted themselves into a living instead of having to earn it.

No matter; this kind of thinking struck a chord with Charles and his brother, David Koch, two entrepreneurial billionaire geniuses** who Buchanan got to know when he taught at Virginia Tech. The Koch’s realized that in order to ensure the absolute, unquestioned supremacy of capital, they would have to put in place the long game and operate outside what they regarded as “the prying eyes of the media.”

To start with, they would need to eliminate the poor (whose electoral clout too often shaped the voting patterns of their Representatives and Congressmen) from the equation. These poor would need to be disenfranchised, a process that’s now as much a reality as during the days of the Jim Crow South. For, as Buchanan concluded, too large an electorate was a problem for the white, property owning class of men like himself, especially in the South where popular voting rights would put “colored heels upon white necks” and create “negro supremacy” (and let’s face it. All American citizens weren’t allowed their full voting rights until 1965. Even today the U.S is still 138th of 172 democracies in terms of voter participation.)

No wonder Obama was such an existential threat. No wonder also “the cadre” (as Koch’s army refers to itself) continues to kindle the irrational conviction that he won through massive voter fraud. Indeed, so avidly has this lie been perpetuated that nearly half of registered voters and even federal judges and Supreme Court justices have come to believe that voter fraud is a big problem.

And it was no surprise that the brothers poured more than $100M into opposing him. They now employ more than three times as many people as the Republican committees have on their payrolls. Their ever expanding network, knitted together to fund this “long game” include the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, the State Policy Network, the Competitive Enterprise, the Tax Foundation, the Reason Foundation, the Leadership Institute and the Charles Koch Foundation.

Their first, and so far, according to MacLean, successful mission was to wrest control of the Republican Party (as evidenced not only by the money each of last year’s Republican presidential hopefuls received from them, but also in the debates, when every contender paid allegiance to the Koch agenda: climate change denial, the sanctity of gun ownership, antipathy toward public education and teachers’ unions – indeed all unions – the need for radical tax changes (i.e. a Flat tax whereby both rich and poor pay the same tax rate…Trump’s present mission) the need to discontinue Medicaid (and later Obamacare) and the need to privatize what they reframe as a looming crisis facing Social Security (salvageable only via private, Wall Street-led investments).

Only then – with a chastened and corralled Republican party – could there be the beginnings of true “liberty”, which is seen as the insulation of private property rights from the government and the takeover of what was long public (such as schools, prisons, state lands etc.) by corporations.

For MacLean, the ideological schism seeded so long ago and actively encouraged by the Koch’s has hardened into two clear world views: collective security (“we the people”) v individual liberty. Collectivism was seen as the key menace to liberty, one that “undermines individual responsibility…and weakens the moral fiber of the people” (Milton Friedman)

The “I” v “we” dichotomy has an even darker twin: the white majority, the forebears who made the country…the ‘real’ Americans v the ‘others’…in Virginia’s J. Addison Hagan’s words, “the minorities such as Farmers, Unions, Negroes and Jews”. Individuality (or the right to discriminate) was seen as a higher good than racial equality.

The problem however remained. The reductions (or, rather, abolishment) they sought in government taxes, social programs, even public owned and enjoyed parks and open spaces, would never be voted in by the majority of people (who actually enjoy these programs). One of Buchanan’s later books, “The Limits of Liberty” made the point abundantly clear: there was simply no way to reconcile individual property rights with universal voting rights.

Democracy was inimical to individual liberty.

What was needed was a program or programs that would accelerate the pace of disenfranchisement and would ‘mainstream’ these ideas. What was needed was more akin to a revolution. Indeed, Koch’s Cato Institute alluded to Cato the Elder, famed for his declaration that, “Carthage must be destroyed”. The Cato Institute’s mission was one of demolition: it sought nothing less than the annihilation of statism in America. And while that radical long game was put in place, another Koch enterprise, the Reason Foundation proceeded along more covert lines.

It’s director Robert Poole Jr. mapped out the strategy clearly.

Revolution by incrementalism.

“You can hack away at government” he said, “by privatizing one function after another, selling each move as justified for its own sake rather than waiting until the majority of the population is convinced of the case…” [This neatly summarizes the ideology of the present U.S. ‘corporatizing’ of public lands…and here in the UK, of the Conservative sell off of anything they can get their hands on, from the Post Office to prisons to NHS properties to policing]

It was in 1973, when these ideas were initially fully put into action…in Chile. 1973 was the year General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. Impressed by his ideas, a devotee of the Virginia school, one José Piñera, later Pinochet’s Minister of Labour (and still later an executive of the Cato Institute) invited Buchanan to advise and guide the new dictatorship in helping to rewrite the Chilean constitution. The rewritten constitution defined, and codified into law, Buchanan’s mandates on how to limit the reach of democracy, the role of privatization, deregulation and the state-induced fragmentation of group power. Chile’s dictatorship became the American libertarians’ play school.
Back home, the Koch’s expanded the role of their think tanks (referred to as the “Kochtopus”) to become “think and do” tanks: their strategic mission evolved as one that would begin to train as vast a cadre of ‘foot soldiers’ as possible via the universities and academics funded by them.

Call them the “message multipliers”.

He also by then decided on a strategy of dissimulation and misinformation. His programs (such as, for example, the removal of Medicaid and Social Security) would be presented to the public as the opposite of what they were; they’d be framed as intending to reform and shore up these services when the intent was to kill them.

Their (familiar) targets (all of which were seen as interfering with business) were clear: government regulations, environmentalists (who had to be defamed not only defeated – mainly by insinuating they were only interested in monetary rewards -, government backed heath and welfare, education (“the most socialized industry in the world”), the graduated income tax and feminists (“heavily socialistic for no apparent reason”)

This approach, exemplified by the likes of Koch-funded Dick Armey, the man who, with Newt Gingrich wrote the infamous “Contract with America” has been so successful that by 1990, 40% of the US federal judiciary had been treated to a Koch-based curriculum. Koch’s “think and do” tanks now exist in all 50 states.

The Koch’s anti-environment funding is also now beginning to pay off big time. Only 8 of 287 Republicans in Congress acknowledge that man-made climate change is real. The number of Americas who believe in man-made climate change has fallen from 71% in 2007 to about 40%. Koch and his paid-for Congress would rather invite global catastrophe than allow regulatory restrictions on economic liberty.

Public health budgets have been systematically cut. The result has been disasters like Flint, Michigan, where the Koch-funded Mackinac Centre (“When the Mackinac Centre speaks, we listen” said Michigan governor John Engler) ensured that their proxies saved money by switching the source of the city water supply to the polluted Flint River. For 18 months, 100,000 residents (mainly Black) were systematically poisoned.

The Koch-funded State Policy Network have also been able to convince a sizable segment of the American population that the problems in schools today are the result of teachers’ unions. The result is a gutting of schools’ budgets [or… Betsy Devoss!]. Where is the money going? To a new education industry of private schools (following the same rule book that has corporatized the prison service)

Following the Pinochet-trialed formula, over the last decade, multiple laws have been put into place up and down the country to hobble Labour unions

Remember their mantra: Collectivism or anything that smacks of collectivist action is bad. Remember also their stealth strategy to force disenfranchisement at all fronts.

MacLean quotes an investigation by the New York Times which examined the increasingly far-reaching power-play by American corporations. The articles point out that included in the fine print of applications for, say, employment, credit cards, cell phone service, medical practices or long term care, is language that prevents the signers from participating in any form of collective action, such as class action lawsuits over corporate malpractice. Consumers have willingly and unknowingly signed away their constitutional rights to sue in court.

As one Reagan-appointed federal judge summarized, “Ominously, business has a good chance of opting out of the legal system altogether and misbehaving without reproach”

It is here, at the point of the law that the rubber hits the road. As one North Carolina insider summarized: “Lose the courts, lose the war”

The Koch’s clearly see control of the courts as the critical key to getting around the intractable problem of voter majorities. As a result, their donor network has pumped hitherto unheard-of sums into state judicial races. The intent was to deny municipal governments the right to make their own policies. In other words, should a democratically elected Congress pass laws inimical to any of Koch’s programs, they’d have the power to bypass those laws locally. GOP –controlled states have been passing what are called “pre-emption laws”. These deny localities the right to adopt policies that depart from an imposed model; as a result, GOP states’ governments are preventing city and state governments from enacting such measures as raising local minimum wages, protecting the environment or enacting antidiscrimination measures that would protect LGBT citizens.

Worse than this, the disenfranchisement program continues to be a wide spreading victory for “the cadre”. By 2012, Republican legislators in fourty-one states introduced more than 180 bills to restrict who could vote and how…mainly affecting low-income voters, young people and Blacks. This is the most aggressive attack on universal franchise in the U.S since the mass disenfranchisement instituted by southern states a century ago.

Two journalists, Jane Mayer and David Daley (hounded by Koch’s investigators intent on finding dirt on them…or what is referred to as “upping the transaction costs on the other side”) further have pointed to a plan called the Redistricting Majority Project or REDMAP. This has been what MacLean describes as a cunning plan aimed at boosting the power of Republicans even where majorities backed Democrats.

Author and magazine editor (of The Salon) David Daley has made the ‘state of the union’ abundantly clear: the GOP is an election away, he wrote, “from achieving an unimaginable goal in a country that sees itself as a beacon of democracy: a veto-proof supermajority operating without majority support” [Indeed Trump is the second president in the last ten years to have been elected with a minority vote]

MacLean’s conclusion is sobering.

The U.S has reached a point, she contends, where it is being run by an oligarchy in all but the outer husk of representative form. Its leaders, she notes [and which we’ve recently witnessed in Charlottesville] “have no scruples about enlisting white supremacy to achieve capital supremacy….And today, knowing that the majority does not share their goals and would stop them if they understood the endgame, the team of paid operatives seek to win by stealth”

“Is this the country we want to live in? If we delay much longer” she laments, “those who are imposing their stark utopia will choose for us”

* The Fifth Column refers to the covert insiders who align with outside forces to destabilize the status quo
** Charles Koch turned his dad’s $70M oil company into one now that has annual revenues of over $115b and employs over 67,000 people in 60 countries.


BABY DRIVER*** High Octane


“Baby Driver” is a charming, amped up, non stop, music thumping, machine gun syncopating gangster, heist, rom-com, wanna be Bonnie and Clyde, kinetic explosion, sort of movie.

There’s a vague plot about a jive walking, withdrawn, tinnitus plagued youth – his “real” name is Baby- who’s forced into a life of crime (He’s the getaway car driver) as re-payment to a debt he owes to a soft-spoken crime kingpin (Kevin Spacey oozing avuncular menace). He falls for Debora (lily James from “Downtown Abbey”), a waitress in a diner –  an icon of guileless sweetness; a shining light in his dark violent life – and their grand, existential plan is to high tail it outta town…to anyplace that’s not “here”.

Baby seeks to drown out the tinnitus from which he suffers (the result of a car crash, fatal to his arguing parents) with a steady, carefully curated music mix; a beat that locks him away from his gangster surroundings and drives the rhythm of his life… as well as the tempo of the movie.

Director-writer Edgar Wright is mapping out an interesting space for himself in the Tarantino dominated world of pulp-fiction moviemaking. His previous movies, “Hot Fuzz” and “Dawn of the Dead” seamlessly morph into “Baby Driver”. These movies all take their cue from well-seeded movie tropes: the zombie movie, the cop movie and now the car chase/heist movie. Hs talent is to then turn clichéd convention on its head. The result are movies that are both pastiches of movie conventions as well as (his) launching pads. This is the heist movie as music video on steroids (with a riotous nod to the grisly killings you expect from the “Final Destination” franchise)

His cast of characters – all badass gangsta types (played without much humor in the “Fast and Furious” money spinners) – are all slightly crazier versions of a type…as if to draw attention to the silliness of the type, even while revelling in the silliness. The stand-out bad guy by far, from whom Baby must escape, is Buddy. This is John Hamm with a bad haircut and a Terminator’s refusal to stay dead. If ever he had to kill off his suave Don Draper character, “Baby Driver” delivers in spades.

The movie revolves around and dances to the beat of Ansel Elgort (from the vapid “The Fault is in Our Stars”) as Baby. He’s tremendous: a lithe, rhythmic presence, whose expressionless almost autistic look masks an unflinching determination and an ability to elude the tall shadows cast by his fellow powerhouse actors: Spacey and Jamie Fox.

Edgar Wright (who also wrote the funny script for “Ant Man” and Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin”) is a tremendous movie-maker: the breathtaking stunts, the whiplash editing and the good natured energy of the whole enterprise make for great fun.

Though I do admit, the five-star reviews and the suite of accolades the movie garnered, prepared me for something different and lead to some disappointment. Some of Tarantino’s movies are themselves five-star worthy…because they frame the experiences – of slavery, of naziism – through a lens of real insight and rich thematic seriousness…all as part of the gungo-ho carnage that mark his oeuvre.

“Baby Driver” certainly has a fresh distinctiveness to its style; and it’s endearingly engaging.
But it’s nothing more than that.

High craft, yes. High art, no.


BABY DRIVER. Dir: Edgar Wright. With: Ansel Elgort, Jon Hamm, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx. Cinematographer: Bill Pope (“The Jungle Book”) Editors: Jonathan Amos (“A United Kingdom”) and Paul Machliss (“The World’s End”)


WONDER WOMAN*** A Woman Worth the Wonder

WHEN IN THE dying months of the Great War, Diana (aka Wonder Woman) loosens her hair and, sword in hand, strides fearlessly into No Man’s Land, this just about OK movie, earned its price of admission. Israeli ex-soldier Gal Gadot (from some of the endless “Fast and Furious” moneymakers) is Diana, daughter of Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) queen of the Amazons…crafted in clay and brought alive by Zeus himself. She’s a statuesque beauty that exudes an on-screen presence that’s simply Wowza. More than that, she makes for a thoroughly convincing Amazon. Beauty meets badass like never before.

The movie was directed by Patty Jenkins (‘Monster”) and has, so far, proven to be the highest ever, grossing movie by a woman. To borrow from the old Virginia Slims slogan, “We’ve [OK, they’ve] come a long way babe!” Here’s a super-hero action movie that’s about a colony of warrior women who have chosen to do without men; and that features a fearless woman who doesn’t need the strong arm of a man to help her out as she does battle with the god of war (and most of the German army).

And one that’s had an opening weekend of +$180M.

“Wonder Woman” is both an origin myth (usually the strongest of the superhero tropes, which almost always trail off into repetition thereafter) and a coming of age story. We first meet Diana as a (rebellious) child, desperate to learn the pugilistic ways of her tribe of Amazons. They live in a sort of time-warp bubble in the paradisiacal island of Themiscyra… where they mainly seem to train in mixed martial arts (in a sort of Amazonian fitness centre); all in preparation for the possible return of Ares, the (defeated) god who brought war to the world. War comes to their paradise when Steve, an Allied fighter pilot (Chris Pine) somehow crashes through their invisibility shield. By now the child has morphed into a woman, well capable of plunging deep into the wine dark sea to rescue him. He speaks of a world at war; of terrible loss of life and human suffering. Perhaps the dread Ares (David Thewlis) has retuned. Diana feels she must leave her paradise and return with Steve to kill Ares and end the war. Or maybe she’s just motivated by the sight of her first naked man. He is, after all, above average he tells her, a piece of boasting she no doubt feels compellingly motivating.

And so it came to pass, Diana grew to experience both war and love.

Many battles ensued.

Director Jenkins stages some really impressive – often slo mo- battle scenes as Diana spins and somersaults her way to taking out legions of bad guys… with her sword, shield and Olympian lasso.

The weak link in the whole enterprise is its uninspired script. Alan Heinberg, whose main claim to fame is the ABC crime drama, “The Catch” is credited with the screenplay along with Zac Snyder (credited as story creator and director of the dreary Superman reboots and the turgid “300: Rise of an Empire”) and Jason Fuchs (who wrote “Rags: The Movie”, one of those movies seen only by his family). This trio never quite manage either to attempt at plausibility or even to give Diana’s character, character.

Thank the gods, Gal Gadot manages to pull it off despite them.
And now she’s off for lunch with Bruce Wayne. Those Amazons. They do get around


Wonder Woman. Dir: Patty Jenkins. With: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Danny Huston. Writer: Allan Heinberg. Production Designer: Aline Bonetto (“Pan”). Cinematographer: Matthew Jensen (“Fantastic Four”)


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


       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

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



…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: 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



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)