from The Prodigal: 14

By Derek Walcott b. 1930 Derek Walcott
I

From a blue keg, the barrel's thumb-tuned goatskin,
the choirs of ancestral ululation
are psalms and pivot for the prodigal
in a dirt yard at Piaille, are confrontation,
old incantation and fresh sacrifice
where a ram is tethered, without the scrolled horns,
wool locks and beard of the scapegoat,
in the Old Testament, or black blood gushing in a trench
in Attic ceremony and rite. Death softens the eyes
of the still, unbleating sheep, a common ewe,
as for you this is common. There is no awe
in repetition, no claim, no tribal ecstasy,
no pardon in the bent smoke from Guinea,
the sprinkled white rum, or the meal crumbled
on the small stone altar, in the broken memory
of the slaver's coast and the braided villages
of thatch and coalpot from the salted passage
to this paralysis where your pale feet cannot keep time
feel no communion with its celebrants,
they keep another time, the time you keep
comes with a different metre, your skin
what sheath and prison that it has become
as a dried chrysalis with no ressurection
and one unwished for. Star-embers fade.

II

I could give facts and dates, but to what use?
In the lush chasms and fissures of Choiseul
an ogre bred my grandam, whelped my father,
erected my tall aunts; slopes with potato vines,
and the narrow, clean dark water of River Doree,
the fragrant hogplums and chapel of La Fargue;
go in search of his own shire, unlatch a gate
that opens into Albion, its faery flowers,
its source of intellectual bastardy,
without embarrassment or degradation,
without belligerence or accusation,
and mostly selfishly, without self-contempt,
a curious and self-nourishing integer
outside their given numbers and their dates,
as nameless as the bush, beyond heredity
or prophecy, or the quiet panic of clocks,
the shallow penitence of mirrors. Mongrel.
And out of this chord, this discord will come
the Atlantic's drone, the Caribbean hum
of chaos in an ochre afternoon
the enclosing harmony that we call home
when the sea mints its quicksilver, when
the cedars sag and the light ends up with nothing.
The facts! The Facts! The history. The cause.
You need a history to make your case.

III

1492. 1833. 1930.
Dates. The one thing about which there is no discourse.
Dates multiplied by events, by consequences,
are what add up to History. We have a few coins
struck for a mere handful of events,
as amateur numismatists, regal profiles,
none worthy in the traditional way of memory
slavery being an infinity of endeavour
without pause or payment, without commemoration,
only the long division of day into dark,
of drought into rainburst, equinoxes glide
over their own shadows, and all our dates,
our calendars, hymns and anniversaries,
were bequeathed to us. Left to itself
the brain would be mantled like coral in the cool
shade of a reefs outcrop and turret, swayed
like reeds in meditation, dateless.
The petals of the sun curl, wilting on its stalk–
here comes the quiet lily crescent of the moon.

IV

From this thick tree issues miraculous bread.
The breadfruit makes itself from copious shade,
whose dial is the ground's dry, palmate leaves,
a voluble, invaluable dome, a library,
where all the town's talk is stored,
and in whose core is coiled—a tempest,
a rising sea in wind, the spinning pages
of remorseful texts, Bligh's log and cannonballs
and bowling thunder, shelter from the rain    
and so magnanimous in circumference
that it has no time without shade, and shade
is suffering. The sun makes their suffering mute.
This bedraggled backyard, this unfulfilled lot,
this little field of leaves, brittle and fallen,
of all the cities of the world, this is your centre.
O to be luminous and exact! As this tree is
in ripening sunshine, that your own leaves could shine
with nourishment, and give such shade and peace,
the mirror of each canvas that you sign.
Despite acclamation, despite contempt,
I was never part of that catalogue
in spite of friends in the same business
neither of the free-verse orthodoxy, nor the other—
the clogged, elegiac thickness of memory;
farther away from all that, forever,
knee-high in the foam of the page
wading by sounding caves.
Gradually it hardens, the death-mask of Fame.

V

And Sancta Trinidad. It is that sacred to me.
However fragmentary, through a sunlit hedge,
by the running of clear water over the sun-wiry stones
and a cool hoarding of bamboos without a bridge
phrases of Spain in summer, in the vale of Santa Cruz,
perhaps because of the name, but the bamboo's fountains
arch, sounding sweet, surreptitious, twittering leaves
and shadows moving over indigo mountains.
In a green street of hedges and vermilion roofs,
and gates that creak open into banana yards
and doors that groan on the evocation of ginger
behind which are the hill with five cresting palms
whose long fingers are stirring tropical almanacs
darkened with rain over the grey savannahs
of zebu and bison and the small chalk temples
of an almost erased Asia, and the ovations of cane
through which turbaned horsemen carry feathering lances.
The cloud-white egret, the heron whose hue
is wet slate, move through a somnolence
as sweet as malaria to a child whose parched lips
are soothed by a servant or his own mother,
to the sudden great sound of rain on the roofs,
cloudburst of benediction, dry seas in his ears.

Derek Walcott, "14" from The Prodigal. Copyright © 2004 by Derek Walcott. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, www.fsgbooks.com. All rights reserved.

Caution: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Source: The Prodigal (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Derek Walcott b. 1930

POET’S REGION Caribbean

Subjects Living, Coming of Age, Nature, Landscapes & Pastorals, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Religion, The Spiritual

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Derek  Walcott

Biography

Born on the island of Saint Lucia, a former British colony in the West Indies, poet and playwright Derek Walcott was trained as a painter but turned to writing as a young man. He published his first poem in the local newspaper at the age of 14. Five years later, he borrowed $200 to print his first collection, 25 Poems, which he distributed on street corners. Walcott’s major breakthrough came with the collection In a Green Night: . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Coming of Age, Nature, Landscapes & Pastorals, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Religion, The Spiritual

POET’S REGION Caribbean

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.