From 'The Prodigal'
By Derek Walcott
In autumn, on the train to Pennsylvania,
he placed his book face-down on the sunlit seat
and it began to move. Metre established,
carried on calm parallels, he preferred to read
the paragraphs, the gliding blocks of stanzas
framed by the widening windows-Italian
light on the factories, October's
motley in Jersey, wild fans of trees, the blue
metallic Hudson, and in the turning aureate afternoon,
dusk on rose brickwork as if it were Siena.
Nothing. Nobody at the small railroad station.
The willows fan open. Here we hung our harps,
as the river slid past to elegiac banjos
and the barge crawled along an ochre canal
past the white spires of autumnal towns
and racketing freight trains all long whoop and echo.
Stations, bridges and tunnels enter their language
and the scribble of brown twigs on a blank sky.
And now the cars began to fill with pilgrims,
while the book slept. With others in the car,
he felt as if he had become a tunnel
through which they entered the idea of America-familiar
mantling through the tunnel's skin.
It was still unfamiliar, the staidness of trains.
And the thoughtful, the separate, gliding in cars
on arrowing rails serenely, each gripped face intent
on the puzzle of distance, as stations pass
without waving, and sad, approaching cities,
announced by the prologue of ramshackle yards
and toothless tunnels, and the foliage rusting
across an old aqueduct, loomed and then dwindled
into their name. There were no stations
or receding platforms in the maps of childhood
nor blizzards of dogwood, no piercing steeples
from buttressed cathedrals, nor statues whose base
held dolphins, blunt browed, repeating themselves.
Look at that man looking from the stalled window-he
contains many absences. He has ridden
over infinite bridges, some with roofs below,
many where the afternoon glittered like mica
on the empty river. There was no time
to fall in love with Florence, to completely understand
Wilmington or the rusty stanchions
that flashed past with their cables
or how the screaming gulls knew
the names of all the women he had lost.
There was sweet meditation on a train
even of certain griefs, a gliding time
on the levelled surface of elegiac earth
more than the immortal motion of a blue bay
next to the stone sails of graves, his growing loss.
Echoing railway stations drew him to fiction,
their web of schedules, incoherent announcements,
the terror of missing his train, and because trains
(their casual accuracy, the joy in their gliding power)
had (there were no trains on the islands
of his young manhood) a child's delight in motion,
the lines and parallels and smoky arches
of unread famous novels would stay the same
for yet another fall with its bright counties,
he knew, through the gliding window, the trees would lift
in lament for all the leaves of the unread books,
Anna Karenina, for the long wail of smoke
across Alpine meadows, for soldiers leaning
out of war-crowded stations, a separate joy
more rooted in landscapes than the flare of battles.
In the middle of the nineteenth century,
somewhere between Balzac and Lautréamont,
a little farther on than Baudelaire Station
where bead-eyed Verlaine sat, my train broke down,
and has been stuck there since. When I got off
I found that I had missed the Twentieth Century.
I studied those small things which besieged the station,
the comical belligerence of dragonflies
and the perpetual astonishment of owls.
It was another country whose time had passed,
with pastoral willows and a belief in drawing.
I saw where Courbet lived; I saw the big quarry
and the lemon light of Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot.
The noise of roaring parliaments, a noise
that sounded like the ocean, whorled in my ear-shell,
was far, and the one sibilance was of the poplars
who once bowed to Hobbema. My joy was stuck.
The small station was empty in the afternoon,
as it had been on the trip to Philadelphia.
I sipped the long delight of a past time
where ambition was too late. My craft was stuck.
My deep delight lay in being dated
like the archaic engine. Peace was immense.
But Time passed differently than it did on water.
There is a continent outside my window,
in the Hudson's patient narrative. There's some calm.
But traffic hurtles up the West Side Highway,
and in fall, the embankment blazes, but
even in spring sunlight I have rarely sought
the glittering consolation of the river,
its far-fetched history, the tongues of unknown trees
talk to an old man sitting on a bench.
Along the smouldering autumnal sidewalks,
the secretive coffee-shops, bright flower stalls,
wandering the Village in search of another subject
other than yourself, it is yourself you meet.
An old man remembering white-headed mountains.
And subtly the sense insinuates itself
that frequent exile turns into treachery,
missing the seasons at the table of July
on lower Seventh Avenue when young women glide
like Nereids in their lissome summer dresses,
all those Susannas for a single elder!
In spring the leaves sing round a tireless statue
who will not sit although invited to.
From a fresh- to a salt-water muse. Home to the Hudson.
The bells on a bright Sunday from my bed,
the squares of sunlight on the buildings opposite
the river slate, the sky cloudless, enamelled.
Then Sunday brings its summary of the world,
with the serene Hudson and its criss-crossing ferries,
great clouds and a red barge.
Gaze, graze on the numinous greys
of the river, its spectral traffic
and the ghostly bridges, the bouquet of lamps,
along the embankment your name fades into fog.
Clouds, the sag of old towels, sodden in grey windows,
the far shore scumbled by the fog,
ducks bob on the grey river like decoys,
not ducks but the submerged pieces of an old pier,
lights fade from the water, "Such, such were the joys,"
muffled remorse in the December air.
Desire and disease commingling,
commingling, the white hair and the white page
with the fear of white sight, blindness, amputation,
a recurring kidney stone, the plague of AIDS,
shaken in the mirror by that bewildered look,
the truculence, the drooping lip of a spiritual lout.
Look at it any way you like, it's an old man's book
whenever you write it, whenever it comes out,
the age in your armpits in the pleats of your crotch,
the faded perfumes of cherished conversations,
and the toilet gurgling its eclogues, resurrecting names
in its hoarse swivelling into an echo after.
This is the music of memory, water.
On Mondays, Boston classes. Lunch, a Korean corner-my
glasses clouded by a tribal broth,
a soup that tamed shaggy Mongolian horsemen
in steaming tents while their mares stamped the snow.
Asia swirls in a blizzard; winter is rising
on drifts across the pavements, soon every gutter
will be a locked rivulet then it will be time
for rose and orange lights to dot the Prudential,
and sparrows to bulb along the stricken branches.
I missed the fall. It went with a sudden flare
and blew its wick in Gloucester, sank in Salem,
and bleached the salt grass bending off Cape Ann,
flipped seals into the sound, rattled the shades
of a dark house on that headland abandoned
except by Hopper. You know the light I mean.
American light. And the wind is
the sound of an age going out the window,
yellow and red as taxis, the leaves. And then
boring through volumes of cloud, a silverfish-
Another from Poet's Choice in The Washington Post Book World, in which Mary Karr writes, "Walcott's recent work in The Prodigal captures a familiar saga, in lines I find his most powerful to date: an aging man still trapped between longing and the physical confines of old age." The book was released in 2004 by Farrar Straus Giroux.
Adam went with the Hebrew school youth group to an amusement park for the afternoon and rain was forecast, so although the Folger Library was having their annual celebration in honor of Shakespeare's birthday (which usually involves minstrels, stage fight demonstrations, poetry readings and cake for all), we decided to stay in the suburbs and took Daniel to Rockville Science Day at Montgomery College. I missed this last year to go to a Beltane celebration and was then bummed not to have seen the baby emu. This year there was no baby emu, but there were lots of other birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, a space shuttle model, student-designed robots, tai chi demonstrations, nutrition exhibits, electric cars and more.
Kids got to dig for worms in a composting exhibit.
Building rockets for a late afternoon launch.
Kids also designed aerodynamic flyers...
...and tested them blowing them out the top of this wind chamber.
And there were many other animals, including this nesting parakeet...
...and this tree frog, part of a display from a local nature center.
After retrieving Adam, we had dinner with my parents; my father had asked us to bring a movie over, so since it's a school night and we didn't have time for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, we opted for the kids' recent favorite Goldmember. Which is still one of the silliest movies ever. And still cracks me up, though I don't think my mother was at all impressed. I was therefore quite amused that The Tudors had a scene focused on the venerable English theatrical tradition of fart jokes -- I like that Cromwell rather than Henry is getting the credit for the rise of the theatre, and that Henry's guilt over his adoration for Thomas More is the cause of his disenchantment with Anne, rather than the usual daughter-and-miscarriage rage. Anne isn't very bright to be interrogating him about his mistresses when he's already obviously in a snit -- though I like that she doesn't sit down and shut up even though she has neither the bloodlines nor the political connections to get away with it -- but Henry is such an obnoxious self-centered bratty jerk! It's so unfair that Catherine didn't get to outlive him.