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John Thieme - ‘Painting & Metaphor in Walcott’s Poetry’






‘The Art of Seeing’

Derek Walcott’s life-long interest in painting and the pictorial arts has been a particularly prominent aspect of his later work, especially coming to the fore in Tiepolo’s Hound (2000), a volume that includes twenty-six of his own oils and water-colours, and also finding expression in exhibitions of his paintings such as his 2005 showing at the June Kelly gallery in New York.1 Tiepolo’s Hound is a work that crystallizes many of the issues surrounding poetry and painting as representational modes in Walcott’s verse. On one level it is an account of its protagonist’s quest to rediscover a fugitive detail in a painting by a Venetian master, an epiphanic flash of colour on the inner thigh of the white hound of the title. Initially he recollects having seen this in a painting by Tiepolo in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. However, with the passage of time, memory blurs and he becomes uncertain whether the painting is by Tiepolo or Veronese. Additionally, Tiepolo’s Hound deals with the career of the Impressionist painter, Camille Pissarro, a Sephardic Jew born on the then-Danish colonial island of St Thomas, who becomes a metonym for a Caribbean artist’s self-translation in the métropole and a figure into whom Walcott seems to be projecting himself. Walcott invents a life for Pissarro, which makes him both a type of the colonial artist striving to accommodate himself to the climate of European art and a kindred-spirit for the poet himself. Beyond this, the poem is also about the medium of painting more generally. It links Walcott’s own enduring interest in pictorial art with reflections on Impressionism, the situation of the Caribbean artist and the relationship between art and lived experience, exploring the difficulty of recapturing specific visual experiences in words, which is my main focus in this essay.

In Tiepolo’s Hound the memory of the flash of colour on the hound’s thigh is a recollection of an image that can illuminate an entire age and the poem provides verbal tropes that have a similar epiphanic effect, for example these lines from the opening of the seventh section, in which Pissarro inserts himself into a Parisian setting through the use of wordplay and in so doing foregrounds the process of cultural relocation that is central to the whole poem and indeed much of Walcott’s oeuvre more generally:

Falling from chimneys, an exhausted arrow –
He watched a swallow settling on its ledge;

Its wings wrote “Paris” from the name “Pissarro,”
A brush lettering a cloud’s canvas edge […]2

In Omeros (1990) Walcott makes numerous references to a swift travelling between Africa and the Caribbean and then the Caribbean and Europe3 and this swift serves as a trope for all the many Atlantic crossings, from the Middle Passage onwards, that have shaped and informed Caribbean history, as well as Walcott’s own artistic odyssey. In the passage that opens the seventh section of Tiepolo’s Hound, the not-dissimilar swallow functions as an agent of an Atlantic crossing that reinvents Pissarro’s name to suit the painter’s new milieu and it represents the bird as an artist who is both a writer and a painter: the swift writes Paris and letters the cloud’s edge, but it wields a brush and views its cloud as a canvas edge. So painting and writing operate together to suggest the kinds of translations that emanate from both cross-cultural journeying and artistic construction. More generally, the verse of Tiepolo’s Hound serves a similar function to the remembered image in the Venetian painting, stirring up evocative memories which undergo transformation through the densely textured metaphors of the poem.

The origins of the quest to encapsulate the visual in words, to develop an art of seeing that makes it possible to realize the visual through the verbal can, however, be traced back to Walcott’s earliest writing and particularly to another long poem, the autobiographical Another Life (1973), which is the most obvious precursor of Tiepolo’s Hound in this respect. It is a poem which begins with a series of images that relate Walcott’s early St. Lucian years to work by Renaissance artists. The epigraph to the first section, which is taken from Malraux’s Psychology of Art, relates how Giotto was inspired to become an artist, not by sheep but by “his first sight of the paintings of such a man as Cimabue”.4 The suggestion is that art, not lived experience, is the other life that begets art and as Another Life opens the late colonial landscape of Castries is very clearly seen through a “white moon’s filaments”, the refracted life of European and particularly Renaissance art. The poet’s “heaven” is “a landscape locked in amber”5 and the first chapter describes his transfiguration of the buildings around Castries’ harbour, which he renders as “a cinquecento fragment in gilt frame”.6 This is the first of numerous references to framing in the text7 and such framing is an activity that attempts both to validate the local subject-matter, which seems somehow to exist outside the world of art – as the poet puts it, “wait[ing]/ for the verification of detail”8 – and to lend permanence to the passing moment of dusk, a moment which from the opening lines of the poem is very clearly both a fleeting instant occurring at a very particular time and in a very particular place and a trope for the twilight of Empire. The poet’s moment of “vision” quickly dies and a kind of reverse alchemy takes over, as the hills revert “to hunks of coal”,9 but before it does so the act of seeing the local scene through the prism of another culture’s eyes and of encapsulating the fugitive moment in a Renaissance frame has suggested another life. As the poem progresses, the phrase “another life” proves to have multiple resonances, but at this early point it seems to connote both the world of European art and more broadly the visionary activity of achieving some kind of transcendence, by perpetuating an ephemeral experience through representing it in art. In this sense, then, it anticipates the quest to rediscover the image of the dog’s thigh in Tiepolo’s Hound. Art, as in many traditional accounts of its significance, becomes a medium for lending permanence to the transitoriness of experience: as in, say, Keats’s Grecian Urn, it becomes the means through which desire can be immortalized and through which some kind of stasis can be imposed on kinesis. And, as the first chapter of Another Life comes to a close, it becomes clear that the use of European pictorial art is far more than figurative. The “I” persona of the poem climbs a hill towards an older artist’s studio10 and in the periodic final line of the chapter watches, like an apprenticed Renaissance painter, as “with slow strokes, the master changed the sketch”.11

This anticipates a central passage in Another Life, in which the persona comes to the realization that his talents as an artist are those of a draughtsman.12 Comparing himself with his friend, Gregorias, both of whom dedicate themselves to the project of rendering their unchronicled local world in art, he decides that Gregorias is the superior artist and his métier is for “metaphor”.13 The implications are interesting, not least because, while the two artists have vowed they “would never leave the island/ until [they] have put it down, in paint, in words”,14 their means of doing so diverge into these two different modes of representation, which seem both complementary and different. However, the poem closes with a benedictory passage which speaks of their being “blest with a virginal, unpainted world / with Adam’s task of giving things their name”15 and so again, while the Walcott figure is obviously the wordsmith and Gregorias the visual artist who will fulfil their vow through the medium of paint, the phrasing here suggests that the Adamic activity of naming is analogous to a form of painting. The “virginal” world that needs to be named has until now remained “unpainted” (emphasis added).

So painting is far more than a subject in Another Life – and by extension all Walcott’s major verse. It becomes part of his verbal project, as he gradually fashions a lexicon that enables him to articulate the hitherto unwritten and unpainted. One sees it in repeated references in Another Life, which may initially appear to suggest a derivative colonial response, but in so doing actually destabilize the relationship between canonical metropolitan art and nascent colonial art. Early on the poet says:

[F]rom childhood he’d considered palms
ignobler than imagined elms,
the breadfruits splayed
leaf coarser than the oak’s […].16

Part of the effect of such a passage is to draw attention to the inadequacy of the child’s perception, which has privileged temperate zone over tropical nature. However, it operates through an art of analogy, which foregrounds the act of representation and implicitly interrogates the culturally encoded hierarchy involved in the comparison between the breadfruit and the oak, by describing the latter’s “splayed leaf” in a precise, tactile way, while leaving its supposed English counterpart uncharacterized.17

Elsewhere in Walcott, the Adamic act of naming may seem to be more or less sufficient in itself as a means of inscribing a hitherto unchronicled experience. The opening of the second section of his poem, “Sainte Lucie”, which originally appeared in Sea Grapes (1986), offers an instance of this:

Pomme arac,
otaheite apple,
pomme cythère
pomme granate,
moubain,
z’anananas
the pineapple’s
Aztec helmet,
pomme,
I have forgotten
what pomme for
the Irish potato,
cerise,
the cherry,
z’aman
sea-almonds
by the crisp
sea-bursts,
au bord de la ’ouvière.
Come back to me,
my language. […]18

This, of course, is far more than just a litany of names. Onomastics gives way to metaphor in phrases such as “the pineapple’s / Aztec helmet”, while the movement between English and French Creole and the act of memory that is seen to be shaping these word-pictures introduces a complex and personal level of intertextuality into the cross-cultural taxonomy of the different kinds of “pommes”.

Increasingly in Walcott’s poetry the attempt to realize St Lucia, and beyond this a broad range of lived physical experience and observed phenomena, on the printed page and to render the visual through the verbal leads to a practice which highlights the tactile qualities of words, while also engulfing them in layers of metaphorical transformation, so that there is a tension between the unrealizable project of achieving a mirror-like transcription of an external social reality and the very overtly foregrounded process of transformation that is being effected through the use of metaphor and meta-literary conceits. The poems stage a debate between two views of language: an approach which attempts to close down the gap between signifier and signified and an approach grounded in the awareness that language creates its own realities and embraces this through an accretion of metaphors. Further complicating this are constant reminders that languages are the products of particular soils and societies and, like tradition, the provenance of words has an added urgency in colonial and post-colonial situations, where issues of etymology and linguistic ownership more generally can seldom, if ever, be taken for granted.

In a poem such as “Cul de Sac Valley”, first published in The Arkansas Testament (1987), the emphasis is still on the discrepancy between a European lexis and the Caribbean natural world, but now the method is even more explicitly meta-literary, partly because it involves the poet reflecting on his craft, but also because it introduces local phenomena into the form, shape and subject of the poem, particularly suggesting that accurate representation may be achieved through a carpenter-like act of composition, which brings language and landscape together, hewing its materials from local and, in one case, West African woods:

A panel of sunrise
on a hilltop 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

as consonants scroll
off my shaving plane
in the fragrant Creole
of their native grain;

from a trestle bench
they’d curl at my foot,
C’s, R’s, with a French
or West African root

from a dialect throng-
ing, its leaves unread
yet light on the tongue
of their native road;

but drawing towards
my pegged-out twine
with bevelled boards
of unpainted pine,

like muttering shale,
exhaling trees refresh
memory with their smell:
bois canot, bois campêche,

hissing: What you wish
from us will never be,
your words is English
is a different tree
.19

Here, then, words are so many wood shavings, being fashioned anew by the plane of a poet/carpenter, who foregrounds the particular nature of the slippage between signifier and signified that occurs in post-colonial situations, as he works with “unpainted” wood. And again, the use of metaphor compounds this, as it exposes the impossibility of the illusion of unmediated representation of the local natural and social world.

Walcott’s likening of the work of the poet/painter to that of a carpenter in this passage has much in common with comments he has made on the figure of Robinson Crusoe, who he suggests can be seen as an archetypal Caribbean artist,20 and his creator Daniel Defoe. In “Crusoe’s Journal”, a poem that first appeared in The Castaway (1965), he stresses the link between the pragmatism of Defoe’s text, Crusoe’s self-fashioning and what he sees as the origins of Caribbean discourse:

[. . .] even the bare necessities
of style are turned to use,
like those plain 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. 21

Defoe and Crusoe are, then, seen as giving practical expression to “Adam’s task of giving things their names”. Walcott also identifies with the plain carpentry of Defoe’s prose style for another reason. Talking about the influence of his Methodist upbringing in a 1986 interview, he said:

Decency and understanding are what I’ve learned from being a Methodist. Always, one was responsible to God for one’s inner conduct and not to any immense hierarchy of angels and saints. In a way I think I tried to say that in some earlier poems. There’s also a very strong sense of carpentry in Protestantism, in making things simply and in a utilitarian way.22

However, from another point of view, the metaphorical emphasis on poetic craftsmanship that one finds in a poem such as “Cul de Sac Valley” is at odds with both Defoe’s Puritan verisimilitude, with its illusion of transparent prose, and such Methodist utilitarianism. While Walcott is one of the Caribbean’s finest prose stylists, his perennial immersion in metaphor distances his art from the supposed realism of a novelist such as Defoe, who, whether writing about the lives of shipwrecked mariners or plague victims, criminals or cavaliers, purports to be giving accounts of actual experiences in an unembellished prose style; and yet Walcott’s verse never abandons his early commitment to rendering the tactile, sensory qualities of perceived experience on the printed page.

In short, then, Walcott’s project of recording St Lucia – and later a broader spectrum of visual experiences – involves a self-conscious painterly use of words. Despite his early feeling that his own pictorial gifts were limited, one impulse in his poetry moves towards creating vivid word-pictures, but at the same time he moves in an opposite direction by transforming any such rendition through increasingly complex layers of metaphor, which frustrate such literal representation by creating innovatively new tropologies.

I would like briefly to return to Tiepolo’s Hound, not least because it may seem to be placing its main focus on a quest for European art. Any such suggestion is of course mistaken, both because of the focus on Pissarro’s Caribbean origins and also because Walcott’s punctuating the text with his own paintings deflects the emphasis away from Europe to the tropics. The paintings are most obviously influenced by the Impressionists, with several taking their inspiration from Gauguin and Cézanne. As a young writer and artist, Walcott was particularly influenced by Cézanne, whose compositional style could, he felt, be transferred to the local landscape,23 but also by Gauguin and Van Gogh, with whom he came to identify on a more personal level24 and who becomes the painter whose shadow hangs most obviously, and in some ways ominously, over the artists of Another Life: Harry, the “master” of the opening section, who commits suicide, and Gregorias. Both these painters wrestle with the problems of being a colonial artist, a predicament which, Another Life suggests, leaves them on the edge of the precipice, in danger of self-destruction.

Arguably the other side of this syndrome, which ultimately offers an escape-route, is the quest for fixity that informs Walcott’s poetry from the framing devices of Another Life to the search for the elusive dog in Tiepolo’s Hound. At the same time, the poems represent such fixity as unattainable and the representative protagonist of Walcott’s verse – particularly of the later work – is a restive Odyssean traveller, who constantly eludes static essentialism, not only through travelling, but also through its discursive equivalent, metaphorical transformation.

The figure of the eponymous dog in Tiepolo’s Hound provides a particularly interesting focal point for the quest to achieve fixity; it offers one of Walcott’s fullest explorations of the attempt to pin down the lovers on his own personal Grecian Urn. Dogs are ubiquitous in the poem: appearing in scenes in Paris, Trinidad, St Thomas and St Lucia, as well as in the Venetian painting and this seems to suggest the futility of attempting to locate a particular canine as the origin of his epiphanic memory. Ultimately the poet decides it is irrelevant whether Tiepolo or Veronese was the artist. The epiphanic moment exists, like a lost first love, only in memory. Towards the end, a Caribbean version of the hound appears in “parody”25 as a starved, black puppy on a Caribbean beach. So here Walcott finally rejects the abstract for the concrete, while at the same time performing the conjuring trick of transforming the mundane into the luminous and demonstrating his reverence for everyday Caribbean life. Finally, it is this kind of alchemy that answers doubting Thomases – the poem has played on Pissarro’s St Thomas origins by likening him to the doubting disciple – and which turns scepticism about the value of art into belief, and much of this alchemy is achieved through an approach that reproduces the visual through the medium of words that effect fresh transformations through a complex accretion of metaphors.

To borrow the title of one of Walcott’s best-known early poems: a final “codicil”.26 Readers who play detective are most likely to locate the “spectral hound”27 of the poem as a dog in Veronese’s Feast in the House of Levi.28 This was originally a painting of the Last Supper, but as such it was criticized as irreverent because it included a buffoon, a parrot and dwarfs, along with anachronistic German soldiers, and Veronese was summoned to appear before the Inquisition on a charge of heresy. The issue was resolved by renaming the picture to locate it within a Jewish (echoes of Pissarro?) context. It is the kind of reversal that Walcott celebrates in the poem: a replacement of the classical by the Creole, of the sacred by the profane, which itself becomes sanctified as great art.

In a passage about his early response to the colonial legacy of European art, the poet-persona of Another Life writes:

But we were orphans of the nineteenth century,
sedulous to the morals of a style,
we lived by another light,
Victoria’s orphans, bats in the banyan boughs.

Dragonfly, dragonfly
over that gilded river
like teatime afternoons with the Old Masters,
In those long pastoral twilights after the war [. . .]


I had entered the house of literature as a houseboy,
filched as the slum child stole,
as the young slave appropriated
those heirlooms temptingly left
with the Victorian homilies of Noli tangere.29

While the notion of art as theft may echo one of the most famous twentieth-century pronouncements on how tradition operates, Eliot’s aphorism, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”,30 this takes on a particular hue under colonial “light”, as the orphaned “houseboy” / “slum child” / “slave” appropriates the “heirlooms” to develop a different art of seeing.

Notes:

1 “Derek Walcott: Another Life: Paintings and Watercolours”, 18 November – 30 December 2005. I am grateful to Bruce King for drawing my attention to this.
2 Derek Walcott, Tiepolo’s Hound (London: Faber and Faber, 2000): 41.
3 See my discussion in John Thieme, Derek Walcott (Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 1999): 5-6.
4 Derek Walcott, Collected Poems, 1948-1984 (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1986): 143.
5 ibid.: 45.
6 ibid.: 46.
7 On framing devices in Another Life, see Edward Baugh, “Painters and Painting in Another Life”, Caribbean Quarterly, 26 (1980): 83-93.
8 Collected Poems: 146.
9 ibid.; Castries was a coaling station.
10 A figure based on painter, Harold Simmons, who was an early mentor for both Walcott and his friend, Dunstan St Omer, the “Gregorias” of the poem, who went on to become the most famous St. Lucian painter of his generation
11 Collected Poems: 147.
12 Cf. Tiepolo’s Hound: 80.
13 Collected Poems: 201
14 ibid.: 194.
15 ibid.: 294.
16 ibid.: 148.
17 Walcott spoke about his attempt to recapture the “tactile” qualities of specific St. Lucian trees and plants in a television interview with Melvyn Bragg, The South Bank Show, ITV, 1989.
18 Collected Poems: 310.
19 The Arkansas Testament (London: Faber and Faber, 1988): 9-10.
20 See my discussion in Derek Walcott: 77-80.
21 Derek Walcott, The Castaway (London: Jonathan Cape, 1965): 51.
22 “The Art of Poetry”, Walcott interviewed by Edward Hirsch (1986), repr. in Critical Perspectives on Derek Walcott, ed. Robert Hamner (Washington: Three Continents Press, 1993): 70.
23 Walcott interviewed by Melvyn Bragg, South Bank Show, ITV, 1989. See too “The Art of Poetry”, Walcott interviewed by Edward Hirsch, Critical Perspectives, ed. Hamner: 68.
24 See Clara Rosa de Lima, “Walcott: Painting and The Shadow of Van Gogh”, in The Art of Derek Walcott, ed. Stewart Brown (Bridgend, Mid Glamorgan: Seren Books, 1991): 171-90.
25 Tiepolo’s Hound: 138.
26 “Codicil” was originally published in The Gulf (1969) and is reprinted in Collected Poems: 99.
27 Tiepolo’s Hound: 142.
28 It now hangs in the Accademia gallery in Venice.
29 Collected Poems: 219.
30 T.S. Eliot, “Philip Massinger” (1922); repr. in Selected Essays, 1917-1932(London: Faber and Faber, 1963): 182.

WORKS CITED:

Baugh, Edward, ‘Painters and Painting in Another Life’, Caribbean Quarterly, 26 (1980): 83-93.

de Lima, Clara Rosa, ‘Walcott: Painting and The Shadow of Van Gogh’, in The Art of Derek Walcott, ed. Stewart Brown (Bridgend, Mid Glamorgan: Seren Books, 1991): 171-90.

Eliot, T S, “Philip Massinger” (1922); repr. in Eliot, Elizabethan Dramatists(London: Faber and Faber, 1963): 134-51.

King, Bruce, Derek Walcott: A Caribbean Life (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 2000).

Thieme, John, Derek Walcott (Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 1999).

Walcott, Derek, ‘The Art of Poetry’, Walcott interviewed by Edward Hirsch (1986); repr. in Critical Perspectives on Derek Walcott, ed. Robert Hamner (Washington: Three Continents Press, 1993): 65-8

--- The Arkansas Testament (London: Faber and Faber, 1988).

--- The Castaway (London: Jonathan Cape, 1965)

--- Collected Poems, 1948-1984 (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1986).

--- The Gulf (London: Jonathan Cape, 1969).

--- Interview with Melvyn Bragg, The South Bank Show, London: ITV, 1989.

--- Omeros (London: Faber and Faber, 1990).
 

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