THE PRODIGAL

By Derek Walcott

Farrar Straus Giroux. 105 pp. $20

"Gradually it hardens, the death-mask of Fame." The new long poem by Derek Walcott is a troubled meditation on fame and death. Now nearly 75, the St. Lucian who won the 1992 Nobel Prize in literature presents a vivid retrospective on some literal and figurative journeys he has made. Structured in three main parts, in 18 cantos, each comprising three or more sections of flexible blank verse, The Prodigal is the work of a master. The poem characterizes itself as "neither of the free-verse orthodoxy, nor the other -- / the clogged, elegiac thickness of memory. . . ." Wolcott's aim is "to be luminous and exact."

We travel restlessly with an alert, self-questioning persona. He is in touch with literature and frequently refers to visual art. His descriptions are often painterly. Whether in the United States, Europe, Mexico, Colombia, Trinidad or St. Lucia; Greenwich Village, Florence, Wilmington, Zermatt, Venice, Milan, Lausanne, Geneva, Rome, Pescara, Genoa, Paris, Barranquilla, Medellin, Cartagena or Guadalajara, he renders vividly each layer of experience: "Yet what was adored/ the city or its women? Aren't they the same?" Women are a blessing and a threat. "As far as secular angels go there is always one,/ in Venice, in Milan, hardening that horn/ of ageing desire and its devastations."

The prodigal grows and changes: "We read, we travel, we become." But his privileged existence is shadowed by fear and guilt. He cannot always confidently gauge the nature of his reception by other people, and "subtly the sense insinuates itself/ that frequent exile turns into treachery. . . ." He fears that "what he loved and knew once as a boy/ would panic and forget him. . . ." "He had the smell of cities in his clothes." Having, in youth, vowed not to leave St. Lucia "for real principalities in Berlin or Milan," he sees ironic betrayal in his literary achievement, which "widened reputation and shrank the archipelago/ to stepping stones. . . ."

West Indians of Walcott's generation have often argued about Caribbean identity: "we have tortured ourselves/ with our conflicts of origins. . . ." The Caribbean persona is presented as being in awe of First World culture -- "Envy of statues . . . Envy of columns . . . Envy of bells" -- and defensive about St. Lucia: "no echo in the name Gros Islet, / no literature, no history, at least until now." But he rejects the either/or: "no, the point is not comparison or mimicry. . . ." He acknowledges African ancestry and also "an illegitimate ancestor" who is European. "What is culture," asks one voice, "if not the horizontal light/ of magnificent gardens, statues dissolving in dusk/ and fountains whose jets repeat an immortal phrase/ to you, vague pilgrim?" But his celebratory recall of European villages challenges that narrow point of view, and makes us think of similar places elsewhere, including of course St. Lucia: "Do not diminish in my memory/ villages of absolutely no importance,/ the rattling bridge over the stone-bright river,/ un-ornate churches, chapels in the provinces/ of light-exhausted Europe. Hoard, cherish/ your negligible existence, your unrecorded history/ of unambitious syntax, your clean pools/ of unpolluted light over close stones."

The question of language is central to discussion of identity. Since the mother tongue of most St. Lucians is a French creole, the use of English may blur details of St. Lucian experience: "A fine haze screens the headland, the drizzle drifts./ Is every noun: breakwater, headland, haze,/ seen through the gauze of English, a bright scrim,/ a mesh in which light now defines the wires/ and not its natural language? Were your life and work/ simply a good translation?"

Translation is a recurrent metaphor. The prodigal is uncertain in Italian: "Ritorno a Milano, if that's correct." He makes a corny mistranslation joke: "e'n la sua volontade e nostra pace,/ in His will is our pizza." One passage suggests that English is "a hieratic language" that the prodigal will never inherit, though it is the one in which he writes, "his whole life a language awaiting translation."

After many journeys the prodigal ultimately rediscovers "the enclosing harmony that we call home." Returning, he reasserts his commitment to St. Lucia and its people. "My eyes are washed clean in the sea-wind, I feel/ brightness and sweet alarm, the widened pupils/ of the freshly familiar. . . ."

There is plenty of eloquent celebration in The Prodigal. It coexists, however, with a vein of self-recrimination and an unblinking stare at mortality: "Nowhere/ . . . is where we're all headed. . . ." and "do you think Time makes exceptions, do you think/ Death mutters, 'Maybe I'll skip this one'?" "There is an old man standing in the door glass there . . ./ who sometimes feels his flesh cold as the stone/ that he will lie under." There are other valedictory intimations: references to "one last effort," "what will be your last book" and the possibility that what is left behind, a name cut on a wall, will soon "from the grime of indifference" be indecipherable.

Some of the most moving passages center on the death, at 71, of Roderick Walcott, Derek's twin brother: "Your soul, my twin, keeps fluttering in my head,/ a hummingbird, bewildered by the rafters,/ barred by a pane that shows a lucent heaven." At the end of the poem, the prodigal sees dolphins he associates with Roddy, and drifting cinders that are emblematic "angels"; and the boat is shuddering towards "that other shore." *

Mervyn Morris is a Jamaican poet who teaches at the University of the West Indies.