Derek Walcott published his first book of verse, Twenty Five Poems, at the age of 18, then went on to a career that has produced 20 books of poetry as well as several dozen plays and a dozen works of non-fiction. Now we have The Prodigal, an epic from this postcolonial nomad who has drifted among European, American, Latin and African cultures for most of his life. It is a fractured, dislocated and intensely eschatological and autobiographical collage of words, pictures, voices, ghosts and uneasy silences.
The Prodigal is a long poem, 100 pages or so, dividedfor no readily discernible reasoninto 18 sections of freewheeling verse. The central concern, exile, is not new in Walcott’s work; it haunts virtually all his writing, most vividly Omeros (1990), an ambitious, evocative rescripting of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad in a Caribbean context. Walcott has always been a restless soul wandering global spaces in search of a home. Now that he is in his eighth decade, the search seems more frantic, the need even more visceral. The Prodigal launches an older man, feeling piercings of acute mortality on a far-ranging quest that retraces the poet’s own journey among continents.
The central figure of the poem is a divided soul, and his split consciousnesson the one hand, a first-person subject, on the other, a third-person objectdominates the discourse. He expresses his dilemma crisply: My joy was stuck.... My craft was stuck. The rest of the poem amplifies the speaker’s discerned causal connection between sexual potency and creative endeavor. With desire and disease commingling at this stage of his life, atrophying his creative powers, all he can conjure up is an old man’s book[in]...the music of memory, water.
The poem’s epic quest is yoked to elegy. The speaker’s lament echoes Psalm 137, the great lament of Hebrew exile (Here we hung our harps, as the river slid past to elegiac banjos, but the scriptural reference seems a self-indulgent and inappropriate overreaching.
The remaining 17 sections add little. Doubting, questioning and delaying more than Hamlet, the main character nearly becomes a caricature. Further, the poem is flawed by much halting and repetition as well as the more-than-occasional bad line (Thought furred and felt like an alderman’s collar, a chocolate stick for the voracious fog; my heart was available for a reasonable price; Fill the vessel of the egret with oblivious milk and drink to the amnesia of Asia with its yellow beaker.) These phrases, from a Nobel laureate, have the ring of a first-year writer’s workshop. And lines like, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ice Maiden’..... I did not know that she worked as a blond waitress in Zermatt are painfully embarrassing.
As epic, The Prodigal is a failure. Its central figure is no culture-hero (or anti-hero, for that matter); his encounter with looming mortality transforms no one, least of all himself; his response to declining powers is a thinly-veiled Eliotic whimper, not a resounding classical bang; and the language, though occasionally noble (Do not diminish in my memory villages of absolutely no importance... Hoard, cherish your negligible existence, your unrecorded history of unambitious syntax, your clean pools of unpolluted light over close stones) lacks sustained power and resonance.
As elegy, The Prodigal is a failure as well. Such utter self-absorption provokes a shrug, not a tear. There is no consolation here. The old man who describes himself with the age in your armpits in the pleats of your crotch remains bereft and adrift. Near the end, a painful question reverberates: Old man coming through the glass, who are you? There is no answer but extinction (whoever the he’ is, he can suffer, he can make his own spasms, he can die). In the face of this, all the poet can offer is a cheap, misfired ironic shot: In His will is our pizza. Ultimately, loss blights the landscape and all but obliterates hope and home.
Comparing The Prodigal to William Carlos Williams’s Patterson or T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (or Prufrock) or Seamus Heaney’s Station Island or even Dante’s Divine Comedy, for that matter, is misplaced and only brings into sharper relief the radical differences between these works and Walcott’s effort. The carefully articulated architectonic designs, the nuanced verbal textures, the haunting rhythms and images, the intellectual depth, range and resilience that distinguish these earlier works find no counterpart in The Prodigal. Without a defining and realized design, Walcott’s meandering exercise offers little more than the scarcely disguised rantings of an old man raging against the inevitable fall of night.
If we take the author at his poetic word, The Prodigal is his last book. It would be a pity if a distinguished poetic career like Walcott’s were to end on such a low note. Better The Prodigal had not appeared at allor better yet, would that it be followed by another volume in which this writer of capacious talent and luminous intensity exercises his very considerable gifts to enchant and enlighten us once again.