This paper will explore the lens of born retrospection for telling history, a lens from lyric history, rather than narrative background, for engaging history and the arc of a life. To begin, this paper will focus on the anchor of born retrospection for redirecting our attention to an assemblage of history, rooted in new light and new speed from selected poems of Derek Walcott.
A contemporary impatience with the heroic model of telling history is beginning to swell, redirecting attention to how under-recognised practices of lyric can contribute to framing history in our times. This paper will query what we continue to understand as 'lyric' or 'history' and, in particular, the intersections of history with individual history. In this paper, I will look especially at poems that explore new and dramatic relationships between speed and light to represent the formation of histories otherwise unseen. These poems include 'Prelude', 'Endings', 'To Return to the Trees', among others.
Walcott’s fascination of creating and staging something from nothing, long studied in poststructuralist, postcolonial and new historicist terms, for example, suggests at the same time a painter’s and poet’s fascination with the 'grey' and the overlooked and quieter frames, those shades caught between light and dark that pace history differently and reposition the need for teleologically driven legacies. This angle of history in his work has been rarely studied.
Keywords: Walcott - lyric history - retrospection - speed - light
'The light of the world is not necessarily religious. It’s the kind of light you see at four to five in the afternoon in the tropics, especially slanted on a wall and so on...which is a suspended kind of experience. But it’s magical, it’s Dantesque, in a way that everything at twilight in the tropics balances and trembles…' (italics added, Derek Walcott, Hart House Theatre, November 23, 2010)
In this age, we are still often atuned to history, identity, and even perhaps the 'light of the world', through a narrative lens, as we will see challenged through Derek Walcott’s lyric gaze. Walcott’s poems, self-conscious fragments of an alternative history, specifically lyric history, offer a radical angle on the individual journey: a 'different fix' on the modern frame dominated by the history of narrative and its demarcations of origins and measures of human achievement. Long studied, narrative from its birth in England has a forward arc, bent along the upward curve of the Enlightenment and a growing focus on the individual and iterations of progress, including oral narrative, non-linear, and ethnographic narrative. Important voices, from Watt’s seminal work The Rise of the Novel, to writings by C. M. Lotspeich, Mikhail Bahktin, Roland Barthes, J. Hills Miller, Paul Ricoeur, Hayden White, Monika Fludernik, and Nancy K. Miller, just to name a few, weigh in on English narrative’s early and often driving command. In a recent article, Terry Castle reinvigorates an argument on that history of narrative, rooted in its origins and early development. Castle taps into Tony Tanner’s earlier insights of narrative’s unsettled crucial 'ongoingness', a drive forward from opening stasis: '…it may be said that many of the protagonists of novels either find their position fixed too irreversibly at birth and will struggle against that condition; or they become "dangerous to Mankind," or at least to the specific community of their operations, and will attempt to assert their right to live by another rule' (1979: 3-4). Castle corroborates this conceptual drive of origins in narrative: 'What the early novel dramatizes, it seems to me, is nothing less than a radical transformation in human consciousness—the formation of a new idea.' (2012). We may see, on a thumbnail scale, even the emblematic opening that we know well from fairy tales, 'Once a upon a time…', beginning its drive forward by demarcating a line in time that invents a starting point (on the word 'Once') before proceeding, by definition, toward something. In such a compressed form of narrative propulsion, as Maria Tatar explains, the narrative takes up the notion of drive and progress with a vengeance: the beginning of the story often starts, literally, near the beginnings of life, epitomized in lessons learned by a child toward survival and communal well-being, whether curtailing habits of excessive trust in encounters with a stranger in 'Little Red Riding Hood', for example, or negotiating moderation in 'The Seven Dwarfs'. Thus, 'new social roles and identities' (1999, xiii), as Tatar says, rooted in the emblematic energy of fairy tales can be found writ large in what Castle identifies as the wider drive of character in the history of narrative bone structure, its driven and progressive 'diegetic instability' (2012).
In contrast, lyric origins, central to Derek Walcott’s 'different fix' on the unexpected and 'suspended' light of human accomplishment, lean us not toward a 'new idea' and identity, beginning with the demarcation or the invention of a starting point, but backwards from a projected ending; that is, as literary historians are discovering, lyric poems may be said to identify as the beginning, or the moment of awakening, the backwards-looking moment in which the lyric utterer appears already late to the scene, already 'born' into an awakening of self-estrangement. Seth Lerer, for example, a leading researcher in historiography, a researcher, as he says, of 'historical conditions in which they [lyric texts] were written and read' (1997: 131), looks at structures and preoccupations of the earliest known fragments in the English language of secular lyric. He argues that the cross-fertilization of 'Norman diction and domestic grammar' (1997: 129), in emerging English-language secular lyric after the Norman Conquest, arises under conditions of provocation and, what I am calling here, the born retrospective: upon utterance, the lyric voicing is self-conscious of already coming after onto his or her own land, 'conscious of the pastness of its history' (1997: 141). In early manuscripts, the lyric voice, in the period of post-Conquest, begins to irrupt into a once familiar, but now alien, landscape right at home, including Latin sometimes, as well as French and English: 'I have written this song on tablets (of wax); / my dwelling is in the middle of the city of Paris' (the Harley Lyrics, from Lerer 1997: 153). The self-conscious experience of irruption into 'pastness' is integral to the genre, Lerer argues. Indeed, the very condition of 'coming after' ultimately provokes the lyric subject, voice and utterance, as we have come to know it in lyric poetry, originating across fusions of Latin, Anglo-Saxon histories and Continental verse forms, shaping the act of arrival out from the immediate retrospection of exile-in-place: 'For early Middle English lyricists, the sense of exile is not conditioned by physical removal to a place of punishment or pathos. Rather, it remains the product of a country stripped of its familiarities, an exile now internal and the product of a language and a landscape taken over' (1997: 152):
Now your hall shall be built with the spade,
And you, wretch, shall be brought inside it;
Now all your garments shall be sought out,
Your house be swept and all the sweepings thrown out.
(see Lerer, 1997: 143)
Earliest secular lyrics, straining into English across multiple landscapes of language on standing soil, position their fragments to assume a control of the exile-at-home: heralds of pastness, namely, a historically backwards-driven arrival, contributory to origins of lyric form.
Thus, if narrative may be said to frame, or move, a character into the light of day and progress, in order to make a new name and set a new example, the historic figure of lyric is found increasingly to project, instead, a shape of 'lateness' into its own irruption onto the landscape of 'home'. In Derek Walcott’s poems, the lyrics of home emerge from comparably a retrospective glare, the grip of intruders-at-home, postcolonialism and commercialisation of the islands weighing in at birth. Derek Walcott arrives on the lyric scene in 'Prelude', a poem first published in 1948 in In the Green Night, later chosen to open his Collected Poems: 1848-1984. The speaker is dressed early for his own funeral, so to speak, in this opening poem, a poem that is formally and generically in sync with the historic and lyric thread of the exile-at-home, beginning his life already dead to his own birthplace, unfamiliar to the scene at home, St. Lucia: '…the steamers which divide horizons prove / Us lost' (CP: 3). The poems of this period, through Sea Grapes especially, embody the legacy of the lyric’s born retrospective, framing and resisting the local’s paradoxically 'late' birth to his own country. Walcott’s poems thus reveal the arrival and local voice already steeped in the corrosive sentimentality of a 'late' and staged entrance, already entangled in the other’s gaze upon utterance, not to mention the narrative engines of cliché and progress, propelling not only foreign visitors toward self-serving sentimentality but, less comfortable still, a corrupted self-image circulating in a local economy. Walcott says in the Hart House Theatre interview that he wanted these poems of origin and 'home' in St. Lucia to touch 'real life', not economic and cultural projections either of 'fantasy or contempt' (2010).
As we see, the opening poem 'Prelude' of his collected works self-consciously clears its throat at its own entrance, attempting speciously to make 'a holiday of situations'. In this awakening to himself and image, a lyric speaker looks to his island, finding himself at 'home', already insidiously out of place and de-formed. Born into his own mimicry of social gesture and reflex, the speaker opens his eyes, to 'Straighten my tie and fix important jaws, / And note the living images / Of flesh that saunter through the eye.' Yet, at the very same moment, the speaker’s utter resistance to this present exploitation of himself and his local scene awakens and reconstructs the scene backwards, for the purposes of control, from its already looming occupation turned already and potentially into this cliché: 'And my life, too early of course for the profound cigarette, / The turned doorhandle, the knife turning / In the bowels of the hours, must not be made public / Until I have learnt to suffer / In accurate iambics' (CP: 3-4).
To refrain from such speed and mimicry of broad daylight and his own afterlife, the speaker turns back, once more, from this sped-up projection to his current arrival as a state of pastness: '…In the middle of the journey through my life', he explains, in the key of Dante, 'O how I came upon you, my / Reluctant leopard of the slow eyes' (CP: 4). The narrative and heroic speed of the fastest animal, a leopard, enters our vision of this lyric world instantly. The speed is then slowed through the circling lyric 'O', beginning with the already projected narrative self-degradation of sentiment, looking backwards from a point in the future to frame this present. The lyric slowness and (lyric legacy of) backwards projection therefore serves to control the disappearance of the local actor from the stage of his own life at the moment in which 'the important jaws' and mimicry attempt to open it too fast with speed: 'for these [locals] who have been called not men but mimics, the darkness must be total… Its noises should be elemental… Their first sound should be like the last, the cry' (Twilight: 5). As Walcott suggests, the color grey, in particular, supports the lyric cry, 'O', as a key to help suspend the speed of mimicry and light and support the journey backward into elemental darkness once more, beginning again. In 'To Return to the Trees', he writers, grey is the 'great pause' (CP: 340) where we find 'the toil that is balance' and not inflated imitation (CP: 341).
Even in such a short but incisive opening from Sea Grapes, we get a clear view of the potential gaps in framing history as commonly staged through the lens of narrative; here, it is precisely the narrative telling of history-making that constitutes the risk to be fought by the lyric 'O': framing the risks, that is, of narrative speed in the drive forward by the individual to make history and a name. We have seen in 'Prelude' the 'important jaws' and 'profound cigarette', bound only to a mediocre 'I', with 'legs crossed', arrogantly focusing the daylight, and expiring with equal speed. These narrative-driven gestures of light-driven progress appear, all the more when framed by this lyric lens, as acts of mimicry and social climbing, outdated moves in a black-and-white colonial politics of race and greed.
Further, the lyric frame of 'O' suggests the slowness of beginning life outside the drive of 'I' and, instead, inside the circling awareness of anonymity and community, bound by originating helplessness and interdependency: not the 'I', only an 'O' opens out in the lyric, slowing one’s entrance into life as already an act of non-originality, paced already by its ending of dissolution, born therefore into the control and slowness of fading into the very act of making history, not as oneself but as part of others, looking back through 'slow eyes'. Putting oneself and one’s life on the historic page in lyric for Walcott begins, then, after the 'withdrawal of empire', backing up into the 'beginning of…doubt', helplessness and interdependency (Twilight 4). Walcott transcribes this into one of his notebooks, as Paul Breslin records, from his poem 'The Wedding Party': 'And life is only an instant, / Only the dissolving / Of ourselves in all others / As though in gift to them.' (2001: 158). This calls upon a pause and assemblage among the fragments of a retrospective journey, rather than a cumulative and progressive one, the crucial lyric 'journey', Walcott writes, essentially the 'journey back from man to ape' (Twilight: 5).
When in Sea Grapes (1976) Walcott looks through this historically born retrospective lens, his lyric, thus, maps not the light of the islands as we may first think, that of illumination and seascapes (through what can turn out to be even the self-directed eye of mimicry, an economic predator of oneself in full forward motion), but the pause of a lower afternoon and tribal light, when the speaker awakes estranged from light and progress, projected back into the dark and the echoless world of the sea: a world, Walcott writes, of the 'dark ears of ferns' and 'the sound / like a rumour without any echo / of History, really beginning' ('The Sea is History', CP: 367). And in 'The Light of the World', a poem from The Arkansas Testament, the lyric begins projecting backwards, away from the betrayal of ourselves as familiar, instinctual, alive, estranged from each other and ourselves by what only passes as progress:
…Abandonment was something they [the locals] had grown used to.
And I had abandoned them, I knew that there
sitting in the transport, in the sea-quiet dusk,
with men hunched in canoes, and the orange lights
from the Vigie headland, black boats on the water;
I, who could never solidify my shadow
to be one of their shadows, had left them their earth,
their white rum quarrels, and their coal bags,
their hatred of corporals, of all authority.
…Because I felt a great love that could bring me to tears,
and a pity that prickled my eyes like a nettle,
I was afraid I might suddenly start sobbing…
'The Light of the World' ends on the wider angle of an anecdote, the figure’s arrival already an abandonment, estranged from his fellow shadows of 'home', leaving behind only the kind of light that fades, like a cigarette into silence, away from the glare of vapid gains:
Then, a few yards ahead, the van stopped. A man
shouted my name from the transport window.
I walked up towards him. He held out something.
A pack of cigarettes had dropped from my pocket.
He gave it to me. I turned, hiding my tears.
There was nothing they wanted, nothing I could give them
but this thing I have called “The Light of the World.”
'The Light of the World' (1987: 50-51)
As Paula Burnett writes, hitting here upon the lyric history of 'arriving late' onto the scene of one’s own exile-at-home, 'The poem’s narrator…is both at home and away' (2001: 24). The light for Walcott is here the slowing and darkening light eligible for the lyric pause of the exile at home, stopped and projected backwards from a point ahead in time, where mimicry and imitation can otherwise master. In quiet celebration, therefore, '[t]here was nothing they wanted, nothing I could give them' ('The Light of the World', 51) but a reprieve from the bright lights of exile at home toward a rightful fading into oblivion, a new kind of history in which the temporary 'wonder of another', even oneself again, after arriving from estrangement, is enough, is plenty: 'You will love again the stranger who was your self', he tells himself and others: '…peel your own image from the mirror' ('Love after Love', CP: 328), not letting others, colonisers or poets, give or take it, but seizing it back from its projected future by any hand into its incomprehensible present.
Walcott’s lyric perspective, then, resists the story of what he suggests is the negligible Caribbean, based on narrative speed of acculturation and mimicry; it resists the humiliation and false lights of the islander: his work wants no part in the projection commonly found in renderings of his home through the practices of exploitation or self-sacrifice. The Caribbean figure of himself awakens, therefore, in lyric history-telling already in the act of looking back to his own exile as a local, an observor and poet: 'why does my gift already look over its shoulder / for a shadow to fill the door / and pass this very page into eclipse?' ('Preparing for Exile', CP: 304). The lyric stroke thus holds back the narrative of living, what he parodically names the 'courageous' speed of history-making; instead, as we see in 'To Return to the Trees', for example, the lyric and temporal perspective of 'O', born inside a lateness of arrival, now located visually inside a balance of shadows, the 'greys' at the temporal 'pause' of the born retrospective, makes room and holds open space for the local voice amid strangers and commercial aping: 'grey has grown strong in me, // it’s no longer neutral, / no longer the dirty flag / of courage going under… // it is the great pause / when the pillars of the temple / rest on Samson’s palms // and are held, held, that moment when the heavy rock of the world / like a child sleeps on the trembling shoulders of Atlas / and his own eyes close, // the toil that is balance…' (CP: 340-341).
The lyric move for reopening a life already underway emerges in Walcott’s poems under not only postcolonial whirlwinds of racism and poverty but local politics of exploitation. The move for constructing self-image from backwards temporal resistance and visual greyness in lyric in particular puts emphasis on controlling (too fast) speed and (too bright) light: an act of resistance to the disappearance-in-place, rather than building up the stage for a heroic appearance from what he calls the 'flagrant sunrise'. As Walcott writes of St. Lucia and its rehearsals for entering the world stage, 'To set out . . . is to engage conclusions, not beginnings, for one walks past the gilded hallucinations of poverty with a corrupt resignation touched by details….' (Twilight: 3-4).
Making history by controlling the disappearance-in-place as a 'we', rather than preparing to enter the ring solo and as a warrior from conditions of birth of a narrative 'I', remains at the center of how lyric in Walcott’s poems stage a substitution of continuity—especially in color, again, through the mid-shades of “grey”—for the more black and white narrative acts of promulgating identity and naming for life writing: 'grey is the heart at peace, / tougher than the warrior / as it bestrides factions' (CP: 340). No warrior, no name but a rock of continuity, starting from the endings of life, anonymous, he writes, 'My race began as the sea began, / with no nouns, and with no horizon, / with pebbles under my tongue, / with a different fix on the stars' ('Names', CP: 305). So, he says, '…Now, I require nothing // from poetry but true feeling, / no pity, no fame, no healing. Silent wife, / we can sit watching grey water, // and in a life awash with mediocrity and trash / live rock-like. // I shall unlearn feeling, / unlearn my gift. That is greater / and harder than what passes there for life' ('Winding Up', CP: 336-337). The backwards reeling of time in lyric paints a life by starting with the grey areas of what the speaker 'unlearns', his own identity marked by fame, his name, self-pity, all rotating around the edge of the individual. Instead, we learn through the lens of his lyric the backwards act of a person 'fading' into one another responsibly, rather than an explosion of self; it offers a different 'fix on the stars', a different way of understanding history. This history, again, records overlooked and longstanding narrative risks that lyric writing can bring to life and redirect: '…I’m a wild golden apple / that will burst with love / of you and your men, / . . . generations going, / generations gone, moi c’est gens Ste. Lucie. / C’est la moi sorti; / is there that I born' ('Sainte Lucie', CP: 314). What we also hear is an angle of anonymity rather than specious control of subject: Walcott’s lyric rendering of speed and light as fading fuses voices in the formal paradox of an effective anonymity, presenting a subject that is both irresponsible and responsible, and inadvertently taken up by history before being put back on the enduring landscape.
For example, in a poem entitled 'Oddjob, a Bull Terrier', Walcott writes of the primacy of the accidental in the arc of a life, rather than any forward act of 'readiness': 'You prepare for one sorrow, / but another comes… / the unreadiness is all… / You do not connect this / the fleck of the drizzle, / on your flesh, / with the dog’s whimper, the thunder doesn’t frighten, / the readiness is all; / what follows at your feet / is trying to tell you / the silence is all: / it is deeper than readiness….' He concludes, 'and it is blest / deepest by loss / it is blest, it is blest' (CP: 334-335). Loss and unfamiliarity here define the condition of being born most into self-awareness at the moment of experiencing exile-at-home: 'The Classics can console. But not enough', as he writes of his islands in 'Sea Grapes' (CP: 297). Instead, he says, again, in 'Sea Canes': '…out of what is lost grows something stronger' (CP: 331). The mapping and assembling of what is lost from supposed acts of nonachievement, looking back to oneself from the perspective of history and age, inhabit the formidable and revisionary history-writing under the pressure of lyric history, as we see here in 'Names' (CP: 308):
These palms are greater than Versailles,
for no man made them,
their fallen columns greater than Castille,
no man unmade them
except the worm, who has no helmet
but was always the emperor,
and children, look at these stars
over Valencia’s forest!
tell me, what do they look like?
Answer, you damned little Arabs!
Sir, fireflies caught in molasses.
Walcott’s lyric position for telling history is re-begun outside the bounds of forward-facing mimicry, bound instead to the fresh-mouthed and collective unnameable and nonheroic: 'fireflies caught in molassas', even when juxtaposed with the longstanding and well-worn smoothed-over narrative and heroic of 'Orion and Betelguese'. It is a lyric re-beginning, pulled from the grip of a narrative ending; it makes every moment a defining moment of occupying multiple selves, made more acutely visible looking back through the lens of history, backwards through the 'sprigs' of aging, springing from a beard ('The Morning Moon', CP: 338). In this link through lyric, aging and being born are caught on the same horizon, just as helplessness and occupying the moment of exile-in-place are the marks of a life, the love, and the responsibility to make what is already lost or impossible or absent 'blest':
…I have circled every possibility
to come to this:
a low house by grey water,
with windows always open
to the stale sea. We do not choose such things,
but are what we have made….
('Winding Up', CP: 336)
We are most commonly attuned to what 'passes there for life' from narrative sources of achievement, newness of ideas, but that sensibility depends ultimately on seeing birth as 'new' from the start. Lyric history in English never begins with the premise of birth as 'new'; from the start it is already born looking backwards, not forwards, and conjoined with history. It already looks back at itself from a point of reference as a given, whether old age or future history. Therefore what 'passes there for life' needs to be looked at anew from a lyric perspective. Endings have much more to do with lyric than beginnings when telling one’s life, precisely since living as preparation for an ending, and the making of a name, are irrelevant to lyric memoir: only the staging and preparation for an ending that already defines every move from the opening matters. For the lyric historicist, the speed of a life is not only effectively slow and arduous and a 'catch' of history, that of molasses, but a continuity of greys: here, on this stage, we do not fade into black, from a blaze of light, but from a continuum of greys into silence, substituting 'true feeling' ('Winding Up', CP: 336), as Walcott writes, for speed and the rush of history and potential for mimcry. So we hear Walcott tracing the arc of life in history on a lyric, rather than narrative, curve. And the lyric lens of history, again, begins not with the moment of birth, a common narrative strategy, bending forward toward life’s 'explosion', as he writes in 'Endings' (CP: 326). Instead, lyric history relaunches itself from a point of retrospection, the final 'silence' of death not of a name and individual, the usual focus for narrative, but the surrounding silence around that figure. History begins with the born retrospection from that final surrounding silence that reshapes, backwards, an invigorated life without heroic emphasis. We see in the poem 'Endings' this unexpected lyric lens for telling history, no longer spent on narrative flashes of love or unexpected explosions, but one made of slow assemblage and appreciation for the penultimate silences, resistant to naming, like the circling leopard and pause of 'O' in the middle of a life, or the already receding foam and flowers, now highly heard and marked.
Things do not explode,
they fail, they fade…
even love’s lightning flash
has no thunderous end,
it dies with the sound
of flowers fading like the flesh
from sweating pumice stone,
everything shapes this
till we are left
with the silence that surrounds Beethoven’s head.
 For important literary and theoretical discussions on genre, less directly on historiography but including important historical perspective on lyric especially, see Roland Greene’s essay on lyric discourse and performance in early Renaissance: Greene, R 1990 'Sir Philip Sidney’s Psalms, the Sixteenth Century Psalter, and the Nature of Lyric', Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 30: 1 (Winter), 19-40; also: Cohen, R 1986 'History and Genre', New Literary History, 17: 2 (Winter), 203-218; Waters, W 2003 Poetry’s Touch: On Lyric Address, Ithaca: Cornell UP; Roberts, N 1994 'Hughes, Narrative and Lyric', The Challenge of Ted Hughes, New York: St. Martin’s, 57-69; Stewart, S 1995 'Lyric Possession', Critical Inquiry 22 (Autumn), 34-63.
 The lyric 'O', a perennial focal point for lyric discussion by poets and critics, situates itself in the topos of the ineffable, where, as St. Augustine and others in the footsteps of the inexpressible claim with a cry, 'Words fail me', an apex of lyric utterance, which opens and closes in a ring of audible indefinition and resistance. Jonathan Culler famously addresses this apostrophic perspective as an act of address that serves to remove utterance away from 'ordinary' contexts and places it into a 'special sort of linguistic event' (887), one that implores lyric as action. See Culler’s 'Lyric, History, and Genre', New Literary History 40: 4 (Autumn 2009), 779-899. In this view of the lyric 'O', indicative of lyric as linguistic function, and at the limit a notional verb, the focus for lyric temporality remains effectively with the present. As Culler concludes, '…lyrics strive to be an event in the special temporality of the lyric present' (897). Under the gaze of historiography, however, the function of the lyric 'O' as an act of displacement suggests a spatial as well as a temporal element of resistance. Therefore, present action, under the condition of the lyric 'O', and through this historical lens, is from the moment of utterance a born re-action, framing the lyric present already as a displaced past, yielding Walcott’s use of 'O' both to slow speed and to control ongoing displacement and mimicry, throwing action back to the 'cry' of the land, what he has called here the 'elemental'.
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