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Between Heteroglossia and Irony: Walcott’s “crystal of ambiguities”

Paula Burnett
p. 23-36


Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia is used to examine Walcott’s use of different registers of language. His linguistic heritage as a St. Lucian, involving English, French and their Creoles, and his theatrical experience, prompt him to develop a poetics deploying diverse languages and tones to create ambiguity and irony, which deliver a complex truth or signifying “crystal.” However, the power of language to penetrate to an ultimately metaphysical truth is questioned in his most recent work, The Prodigal.

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  • 1 II.I, p.150: “In islands like Guernsey the population is made up of people who have spent their liv (...)

1Recently, for quite other reasons than Walcott, dipping into Victor Hugo’s Les Travailleurs de la mer, I came across this sentence: “Dans les îles comme Guernesey, la population est composée d’hommes qui ont passé leur vie à faire le tour de leur champ et d’hommes qui ont passé leur vie à faire le tour du monde.”1 It comes in an account of an old sailor who has travelled the world but loves best the islands of his home, forced by rheumatism to give up the sea and become just “un bonhomme.” What came to mind immediately was Walcott, and the memorable exposition in Omeros of the craft of writing in terms of “one island, and one truth.” Seven Seas tells the poet “no matter how far you have travelled… you have learnt no more than if you stood on that beach / watching the unthreading foam you watched as a youth” and hearing “the salt speech / that your father once heard.” What Seven Seas goes on to say is this:

Your wanderer is a phantom from the boy’s shore.

Mark you,
he does not go; he sends his narrator;
he plays tricks with time because there are two journeys
in every odyssey, one on worried water,

the other crouched and motionless, without noise.
For both, the ’I’ is a mast; a desk is a raft
for one, foaming with paper, and dipping the beak

of a pen in its foam, while an actual craft
carries the other to cities where people speak
a different language, or look at him differently,

while the sun rises from the other direction
with its unsettling shadows, but the right journey
is motionless; as the sea moves round an island

that appears to be moving, love moves round the heart—
with encircling salt, and the slowly travelling hand
knows it returns to the port from which it must start.
[LVIII.ii, p.291]

  • 2 Ibid. “Mister Lethierry was a man of Guernsey, that’s to say a man of Normandy, that’s to say an En (...)
  • 3 Ibid., 151. “jabber a bit in a lot of languages” (my translation).

2The thought here has something in common with Hugo’s: it is about life choices and aging, and the reciprocity of two kinds of journeying. Hugo’s account of the old man of Guernsey would be likely to strike echoes in Walcott, as it no doubt strikes echoes in those who are moved by Walcott’s work. He writes: “Mess Lethierry était guernesiais, c’est-à-dire normand, c’est-à-dire anglais, c’est-à-dire français. Il avait en lui cette patrie quadruple, immergée et comme noyée dans sa grande patrie, l’océan.”2 Hugo ends the chapter, titled “Vie Agitée et Conscience Tranquille” – “An Active Life and a Quiet Conscience” – with an evocation of the old man’s taste for books and for talk: he liked to “baragouiner un peu toutes les langues.”3 All of these aspects, the plural identity, the pleasure in ideas and languages, chime with Walcott’s (and his readers’) interests. Walcott’s passage is more complex, overlaying questions of aesthetics with a metaphysical reflection on life, its choices, and death, and using a strong level of metaphor to convey it, but the one has the power to evoke the other.

3Things like this happen all the time to those who love the work of Walcott. There is a strong sense that he has been everywhere before us, but not in a negative way, as if everything were already secondhand. Rather the opposite: he enables the gift of recognition, the surprise at seeing a friend’s face in an unexpected location – or of seeing it anew, from a different angle. It is not a controlling process, or an exclusionary one. It is more about stimulating new perceptions. I am not proposing anything about whether Walcott has ever read this passage in Victor Hugo or not, but about how reading Walcott can shape our relationship to the rest of the world. That is the authority of his writing: to make the imaginative experience prompted by language as great as, or greater than, what is conventionally called our experience of reality: that is, all the rest, apart from art.

  • 4 Visiting St. Lucia for the first time, my sense of familiarity transcended my rational awareness of (...)

4In Another Life he uses as epigraph to Book I a quotation from Malraux’s Psychology of Art telling a story about what prompted the young Giotto to become a painter: “What makes the artist is the circumstance that in his youth he was more deeply moved by the sight of works of art than by that of the things which they portray” [CP 143] – and that is one side of it, perhaps a necessary prioritising for the one who is to make art. The other is that as perceivers of art – gazers, readers, its audience – we too can be more moved by art than by what it represents. On reading Tiepolo’s Hound, for instance, the particular quality of the inside of a dog’s thigh, with pink skin showing through what is, in the groin, such thin white fur (it is as much a matter of emotion and even erotics as of biological or aesthetic observation), is conveyed with more authority by the poem than by anything an actual dog rolling over might display – or by anything in the world of painting that the poem persuades us we know. Though another part of our mind may be questioning whether we really have seen such a painting (by Tiepolo? – or someone else? – or, more likely, its photographic image – does it matter?), the poem is so compelling that such doubts evaporate before the authority of its language. It is, for the poem, “a slash of pink on the inner thigh / of a white hound entering the cave of a table” which is “so exact in its lucency… / I felt my heart halt.” [7] We have seen, because we are seeing it now in our mind’s eye. We cannot but trust our experience, in which the past is subsumed.4 As with culture generally, and language, the sum total of what has been informs what is, and in particular informs the meanings of our present: the moment is always an intertextual phenomenon. In the case of the painted hound, the lingering paradox is, of course, that it remains an open question as to whether it is the visual or the verbal that is uppermost in the experience of imagining the dog from reading the poem. Walcott plays between forms of art, conjuring ludic echoes which fascinate us with their dialogic illusions.

  • 5 As he says, “the taste of water is still shared everywhere” [Another Life 7.ii, CP 185].

5It is the power of Walcott’s language to evoke something, as he says, as clear as a glass of water,5 at the same time as maintaining its uncontainability, its provisionality, and the possibility of alterity within it. The glass of water appears simple, but it is actually in a complex relationship to the world and its history, to its potential to be gas or solid, to the optics of its image, and to the infinitely different meanings it may suggest, shaped by individual and collective or cultural experience. Language is similarly complex, as Walcott recognises in his famous remark about its prismatic effect. In Another Life he documents his youthful desire to be a painter – with extraordinary vividness – and then charts his decision to concentrate on poetry, because of what he felt only language could do:

            Where did I fail? I could draw,
I was disciplined, humble, I rendered
the visible world that I saw
exactly, yet it hindered me, for
in every surface I sought
the paradoxical flash of an instant
in which every facet was caught
in a crystal of ambiguities,
I hoped that both disciplines might
by painful accretion cohere
and finally ignite,
but I lived in a different gift,
            its element metaphor… [9.ii,
CP 200-201]

6The “crystal of ambiguities” is, of course, a paradox. We associate crystal with clarity, whereas ambiguity is a matter of uncertainty, unclear meaning, or at least multiple meaning. Yet the image of the flash of an instant reflecting all facets seems to suggest that the multiplicity of meanings can potentially combine in a transcendent sign. Like the glass of water, it appears limpid, but is in fact complex, diverse, hybrid. What metaphor does is to bring together disparate signifiers, making a new entity. Its Greek roots mean “carry across” and it is thus cognate with its Latin equivalent, “translate.” In heteroglossia the juxtaposition of different registers of language is an analogous process.

7Theatre is also inherently multivoiced and calls into question attempts to set it boundaries or contain it generically. For Walcott comes to poetry also as a man of the theatre. In the essay “What the Twilight Says” he records how he and his twin brother as children used to make plays, before both went on to become not only playwrights but people actively involved in making theatre – and this in an island where there was barely a tradition of formal theatre. However, crucially, the live theatre of the street and of ritual was all around them, as Walcott relates, and the boys’ mother took part in amateur dramatics and rehearsed her Shakespeare in the kitchen. In theatre there are always multiple voices, contributing their quiddities to the shared work. Even when a play is a monologue it could be said that the distinctive voice presented to the audience is in a kind of counterpoint, first, with silence, and second, with implicit other voices, the unspoken Other, heard in the interstices. There is something about the nature of the theatre space which obviates singularity, control, monoglossia. Harold Pinter, the British playwright who was awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize and in March 2006 was speaking in Turin on receiving the Europe Theatre Prize, said of his theatre work: “one of the most exciting things about being a writer is finding the life in different characters whom you don’t know at all. To a certain extent, you’ve got to let them live their own life” [11]. This may be regarded as an extension of Bakhtinian heteroglossia.

8When we come to look at the usefulness of this term for our thinking about Walcott, a number of approaches suggest themselves. The first is this quality of drama, of theatre, of creating voices and then letting them develop, find their own dynamic, live their own life. This involves interaction, with us as audience as much as with those others occupying the performance space. In a special way we are co-opted as participants, even as conspirators, in the production of the work, uniquely, on that occasion, in that shared space. But the paradox is that a similar thing happens when we read Walcott’s poetry, not just when we attend his plays. Implicit in the work is the specificity of his own voice, as distinctive an element as is, say, the voice of T. S. Eliot, or Dylan Thomas, in relation to their work. To sit before Walcott and hear him communicate some of his work in his own voice is, necessarily, a very different experience from reading his words on the page. It becomes a performance, a kind of theatre. And, as Harold Pinter said in Turin, when asked whether, in these days of ubiquitous remote and digital communication, he still had faith in what theatre could do: “The mere fact of audience and actors sharing that specific moment in time, the intensity of life that passes between the stage and the auditorium, means there’s nothing quite like it. So yes I still have a faith, a shaky faith, in the act of theatre” [11]. Within the poetry Walcott creates narratorial voices, such as that of Seven Seas, as we have just seen, as well as quasi-dramatic voices. Helen, for instance, does not say much in Omeros, but in her memorable phrases she emerges with her own voice, and her own life. The voice of Dennis Plunkett, by contrast, is completely different, a particular history and subtle social positioning exactly captured. Bakhtin, of course, characterises heteroglossia as the distinctive mark of the novel, as against the epic. Is this, then, a problem, because in many ways that great poem Omeros can readily seem an epic for our time?

  • 6 Figueroa says that the poem has “a sort of novelistic structure of a mosaic kind,” that it “tells a (...)

9The epic is, for Bakhtin, a closed form, a “highly distanced genre” characterised by “exclusive beauty, wholeness, crystal clarity and artistic completedness” [35] – an example of the more conventional association for “crystal.” He contrasts this with the characteristics of the novel: “The destruction of epic distance and the transferral of the image of an individual from the distanced plane to the zone of contact with the inconclusive events of the present (and consequently of the future) result in a radical re-structuring of the image of the individual in the novel – and consequently in all literature.” [35] John Figueroa was one of the first to review Omeros, and one of the things he said about it, with his usual perspicacity, was that it was really a novel.6 Does this fly in the face of Bakhtin? I don’t think so. Bakhtin was not unaware of the need to stretch normal generic distinctions in making his point. Indeed he regards Pushkin’s poem Evgenij Onegin as a novel in verse for the purposes of his argument, saying that in it, “Russian life speaks in all its voices, in all the languages and styles of the era. Literary language is not represented in the novel [as it is in other genres] as a unitary, completely finished off, indubitably adequate language – it is represented precisely as a living mix of varied and opposing voices.” [xxviii] In the words of his translator Michael Holquist, in fact, “’novel’ is the name Bakhtin gives to whatever force is at work within a given literary system to reveal the limits, the artificial constraints of that system.” [xxxi] In such terms, then, Omeros like Pushkin’s poem can indeed be considered a novel in verse, and indeed an epic, but an epic that pushes against the boundaries of the genre.

  • 7 See Burnett, chapter 5, “‘The Smell of Our Own Speech:’ The Tool of Language,” for a related discus (...)

10Like Hugo’s Mess Lethierry, Walcott inherits multiple traditions as a St. Lucian. He grew up in an English-speaking household in a British-ruled but largely French Creole-speaking island; he was raised as a Protestant in a largely Catholic population, and was educated at a Catholic secondary school; and of course his personal heritage is racially mixed, amongst a predominantly African Caribbean populace. All of these factors inform his work and make it unique. For such a small island, it has such a big history, and he has made it his task to give it its due place in the human story. But all this sounds very serious – pompous, even, and Walcott has very highly developed antennae for pomposity. He is never afraid of being serious, or complex, but whenever he feels he is straying towards what he has referred to as the voice rising up onto a platform (for Bakhtin, the epic voice), he takes a dive, cuts himself down to size, cracks a joke. The “sound of the vernacular,” he says, “doesn’t need the voice to go up on a platform” for it carries “a true tone of the human voice in poetry” [Milan]. As Bakhtin points out, “Laughter destroyed epic distance.” [35] I would like to look at some of the strategies whereby Walcott keeps the feet of his language on the ground, as it were, and then to focus briefly on his deployment of French. Walcott’s practice of juxtaposing various tones and languages to produce multiple and simultaneous effects, often forming an ironic whole, might have been devised to illustrate Bakhtin’s definition of the dialogic nature of heteroglossia: that “languages become implicated in each other and mutually animate each other” [410].7

11Examples of texts which have their voice up on a platform are scripture, and the mantras with a symbolic relationship to notions of national identity. Walcott occasionally uses such texts, but he puts them to work in surprising and subversive ways. The elevated sonority of a biblical sentence such as “The wages of sin is death” is composed partly of the high moral and spiritual seriousness of the thought, and partly of the archaic form: the ear expects a plural verb to agree with the plural “wages” but is struck by the apparently “ungrammatical” verb “is”: “The wages of sin is death” is hallowed by ancient usage and familiarity, such that we feel the sentiment inherently requires that particular form of expression, in all its quirkiness. What does Walcott do with it? He sets up the expectation of the quotation by sticking to the first five words, and then transforms it, making it “The wages of sin is birth” – which provokes a shout of laughter. The high tone is replaced with a vernacular tone, with the verb now a Caribbean one, and the warning made to be about unprotected sex, rather than hell and damnation. The discourse of sin has been knocked off its theological pedestal and brought down to the level of daily life: “sin” is redefined as extra-marital sex – and of course since this is one of the things the church rails against, the mores of repression attendant on religion and its precepts are wittily targeted.

12Again, the phrase with a central relationship to America (and ironically, scandalously, even, its currency), “In God We Trust” is given a twist by Walcott. In Omeros he shows the name painted on Achille’s canoe as “In God We Troust” coining a word, which has a complex effect. As a nonce-word, “troust” resonates with “to joust” and “to oust” both of which have a combative, thrusting away movement, remote from the accepting passivity of “to trust.” Thus the statement of faith, “In God We Trust,” is transformed into a statement in which the idea of doubt is of equal strength to the idea of faith. The new meaning does not cancel out the old one: both are simultaneously present. We are left with the reflection that perhaps the faith of a doubter counts for more than the faith of one who has never doubted. But it doesn’t end there. Because of the phrase’s relationship to Americanness and particularly since it is printed on dollar bills, reconceived as it is here, on the canoe and in the poem, it becomes a statement about St. Lucia’s relationship to the USA, again expressing a subtle doubt – and reserving the right for its people to define their relationship to both their God and their mighty neighbour in any way they choose. The poem identifies it as a misspelling on the part of a little-educated St. Lucian fisherman, and it might be easy to pass over it without reflection, but in fact what is going on is a complex anti-hieratic, ironic moment, in which the Voice of America, as it were, is debunked and replaced with an indigenous voice of faith. The poem asserts respect for the original spelling: Achille says, “Leave it! Is God spelling and mine.” [I.ii, p.8] We are reminded, of course, of the origin of the word “Gospel” in “God spell” – good news – and one more twist to the meaning emerges: Achille’s words bear his St. Lucian identity, embedded in this great poem which is a kind of gospel of St. Lucianness, a statement of faith in a people.

  • 8 “Happy the man who like Ulysses has made a good voyage” (my translation).

13A classic example of what I mean about Walcott’s care not to allow the voice up onto that platform occurs in Another Life. He quotes a famous phrase from Du Bellay, the opening of the well-known sonnet written in the sixteenth century, about the tension between travel and homecoming, which uses the resonant mythical figure of Ulysses, redolent of all those cultural echoes, all that metafictional status. It begins: “Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage.”8 The Du Bellay tends towards domestic pieties – it expresses nostalgia for the humble home, preferred to the grand sights of the travels, concluding finally that the sweet breeze of Anjou is preferable to the salt winds of the sea. As it happens, it is, in fact, proleptic of Victor Hugo’s portrayal of Mess Lethierry, as well as of a recurrent theme of Walcott’s. When Walcott, however, chooses to evoke it, he does so in typical fashion, by developing the reference in an irreverent direction. The gentle pieties of Du Bellay are transformed, by irony, into the Rabelaisian vigour of the portrait of Foquarde, who captains tramp steamers around the island’s coast, and his wife. We are first introduced to them like this:

We all knew when the Captain had dry-docked.
    There would be violent bursts of shrieking French,
    And in my own bed, parallel, separated by a gulf
    Of air, I’d hear the Captain’s Wife,
    Sobbing, denying.
    Next day her golden face seemed shrunken,
    Then, when he ulysseed, she bloomed again,…”
     [5.ii, p.173]

14A little further on, comes this:

Heureux qui comme Ulysse,
ou Capitaine Foquarde,
while his pomegranate-skinned
Martiniquan Penelope
rocks in her bentwood chair,
laughing, stitching ripped knickers,
as her coast-threading captain
hums, “
La vie c’est un voyage”
and the polished rocker dips
as her white burst of laughter
drives deep whose prow?

15The name, Foquarde, is, of course, an English joke (ribald but ironic, in that its evocation of the captain as sexual stud is in tension with the hint of impotence in the term “dry-docked”). There is also a joke in the line “when he ulysseed, she bloomed again” which is a witty tribute to James Joyce’s Ulysses and Molly Bloom. It is all very economical, very clever and very deft – and very Walcottian. The risk of pretentiousness in the literary cap-doffing – to the culturally privileged texts of Du Bellay and Joyce – is outmanoeuvred. The beauty of irony is that it can both keep the high seriousness and at the same time completely undercut it. The tribute to Du Bellay is there, as is the acknowledgement of Joyce, but the voice is not allowed on the platform: it is kept down (Bakhtin would say, to the novelistic level) by the wit of punning and irony, and the Rabelaisian celebration of sex and the body.

16Another way Walcott does this is by juxtaposing vernacular with standard language. The lines he chose to quote to the welcoming reception at Castries, as he set foot on his native soil for the first time after becoming the island’s second Nobel laureate (he shares a birthday, coincidentally, with the economics laureate, Arthur Lewis), sum up eloquently the core of his selfhood:

moi c’est gens Ste. Lucie.
C’est la moi sorti;
is there that I born.
[“Sainte Lucie” II,
CP 314]

17This follows a lyrical outburst of a rather different tone, addressed to the island’s beautiful women:

     O Martinas, Lucillas,
I’m a wild golden apple
that will burst with love
of you and your men,
those I never told enough
with my young poet’s eyes
crazy with the country,
generations going,
generations gone,…

  • 9 The “familiar strata of folk language,” says Bakhtin, “played such an enormous role in the formulat (...)

18And then “moi c’est gens Ste. Lucie….” The gear-shift to the St. Lucian vernacular, in French and then English, transforms the effect of the preceding lines, their unruly squads of emotion harnessed to a childlike simplicity and directness, of heart-wrenching power.9 The unfolding drama of language, in which one line follows and, as it were, modifies its predecessor, taking an effect forward, is something Walcott understands very well, as we might expect of a man of the theatre.

19As a St. Lucian he inherits from the cradle a relationship to language which is essentially heteroglossia avant la lettre. He has multiple languages, and multiple registers of language, on which to draw. Typically this gives him a ludic edge. At the beginning of Omeros in that vivid passage where he describes the felling of a tree to be fashioned into a canoe, he plays between languages, using the French names of the trees and of his cast of characters. The ritualised death of the tree is anthropomorphised as sacrifice (the voice rising towards a pedestal), but notice how it is developed:

                       He swayed back the blade,

And hacked the limbs from the dead god, knot after knot,
Wrenching the severed veins from the trunk as he prayed:
“Tree! You can be a canoe! Or else you cannot!”
[I.ii, p.6]

20I have heard a fairly staid British audience laugh out loud at this line. The joke, of course, apart from the comedy of the sounds, is that “canoe” in English is “canot” in French, so that the tree is being promised a choice it does not really have: its fate is sealed. It’s going to be a canoe either way.

21Sometimes, however, a ludic heteroglossia is used to create a bitter irony. In “North and South” for instance, he stages an encounter with American racism. The narrator writes, when

I collect my change from the small-town pharmacy,
the cashier’s fingertips still wince from my hand
as if it would singe hers—well, yes,
je suis un singe,
I am one of that tribe of frenetic or melancholy
primates who made your music for many more moons
than all the silver quarters in the till.
CP 409]

22It is a deeply painful moment. The recoil of a white racist from the touch of a black hand is frighteningly real in the comparative, “as if it would singe hers,” but then the way the idea is developed, punning between English and French, is devastating. The abject statement “je suis un singe” – “I am a monkey” – voices the racist taunt, but goes on to do something with it that cancels out that abjection. The term “tribe” is used, again a commonly racist term, and a self-identification as a primate – well, none of us can argue with that, actually – but look at what then emerges: an heroic self-assertion as a member of that people who have “made your music for many more moons / than all the silver quarters in the till.” The elegance and mastery of the figure, punning between quarter-dollar coins and the lunar quarters, transforms the whole into an assertion of the black contribution to American culture, its noble and extensive history, its beauty and wit, of which the poem itself is an exemplar – a prime example of the crystal of ambiguities.

  • 10 See Burnett, 145-6 et seq., for a related discussion.

23So often, Walcott positions us as readers to confront our prejudices, and the discourses of racism with which our heads are stocked. When he says at the end of “Gros-Ilet” in The Arkansas Testament that “the language is that of slaves” [35], it has a downward cadence only if we fail to notice that this is not inherent, but that such a cadence is a mark of prejudice, of negative thinking. Slaves in fact created their language despite their social circumstances: it was rich and expressive and free, and today’s Caribbean poet benefits from it. Again, irony is deployed to dramatic effect, reversing the apparent meaning of the expression before our eyes, to confirm its exact opposite. Walcott constantly challenges us to think about how we use language, and how discourses use us. Another example is a line in Omeros mapping London’s expectations as a “Dark future down darker street” [XXXVIII.iii, 197], which again many might take, on first reading, as a negative anticipation. However, if we think, really think, about it, it is only if the term “dark” is accepted as inherently negative that this is so. If it is value-neutral, then the line emerges as simply a statement about the way the racial composition of London’s population is changing and mixing. A dark future down a darker street can be fine – can be a bright future indeed.10

24Walcott’s late friend, Joseph Brodsky, another Nobel Prize-winning poet (who crossed from Russian into English as a writer – translated himself, as it were) wrote about poetry as “the supreme form of human locution,… the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience” [100]. Although he is often characterised as a patrician who was apolitical, another of his dictums was that “aesthetics is the mother of ethics” [48]. This, it seems to me, is a profound statement. Walcott’s “singe” / “singe” wordplay, for example, is an aesthetics leading to an ethical point. As I understand it, it is in a sense close to that which Brodsky set out in his Nobel lecture that Walcott’s project is also profoundly ethical, and therefore political. Brodsky said: “I believe – not empirically, alas, but only theoretically – that for someone who has read a lot of Dickens, to shoot his like in the name of some idea is somewhat more problematic than for someone who has read no Dickens” [53]. What Walcott has said to me is:

  • 11 Interview, London, 21 June 1988, quoted Burnett, 314.

If tyrants read, really read, they wouldn’t do what they did, because too much would be revealed, too much would touch them. I think we read now the way tyrants read: we read for information. We don’t read to be touched. But what poetry does, and yes, that is the power of poetry – as Owen said, the power is in the pity – if that can touch, yes it has power.11

25The two remarks bear a similar thought, and no doubt the two poets discussed their common view. It is this, in the end, that I think Bakhtin is addressing in his idea of heteroglossia, as that which tests the limits of a form, a genre or a discourse. Walcott is an extraordinary poet, and artist more generally, because of his faith in art, and his practice in using it to question what is out there, beyond art, and to expose what is false and pernicious. He is always careful of pomposity because with it often come exploitation and cruelty. As he is aware, our sensitivities to the inner voice of conscience are lulled with pride and power.

26I wish to conclude with a glance at his most recent poem The Prodigal. In it he questions the whole basis of language, in a way which goes beyond Bakhtin. It revisits a theme touched on thirty years ago in Another Life when he imagined the non-verbal world, the world independent of human consciousness, having its own relations to meaning. It was a timely reminder of the arrogance of some logocentric and anthropocentric theorisations of the world, which perhaps will come to seem as limited as the Ptolemaic perception of the universe. He raises in the new poem the thought that perhaps his life’s work should be regarded as a kind of translation, and not the thing itself. This is a highly significant moment because it calls into question the high aesthetic and moral standing of art, which he has promoted as the basis of everything. It is a sign of great humility, to doubt the key tenet of his life in this way. He focuses on three things, nouns, in the landscape before him:

A fine haze screens the headland, the drizzle drifts.
Is every noun: breakwater, headland, haze,
seen through a 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? Would headland,
haze and the spray-wracked breakwater
pronounce their own names differently?
And have I looked at life, in other words,
through some inoperable cataract?
The Prodigal, 61]

27This is a deeply serious question. The image of the scrim, the fine gauze used in the theatre to screen, when lit, that which is behind it, is a potent metaphor of obstructed view. Differently lit, when the spotlight falls on what is behind, the truth is revealed. The question is ultimately a metaphysical one, and goes to the root of what the human mind is capable of. He goes on:

    “What language do you speak in your own country?”
Every noun has its echo, a noun is a noise,
as every stone in the expanding sunlight£
finds an exact translation in its shadow,
and it may be that you were halved by language
as definitively as the meridian
of Greenwich or by Pope Alexander’s line… (61-2)

28Perhaps language is the spotlight on the scrim, the trick, preventing penetrating vision. The image replaces the crystal of ambiguities, which expressed faith in language’s power to penetrate.

29But he takes the thought on further. Perhaps it is the obstacle to vision, language is the scrim, he concedes, but even if so, there is something in the looking which makes it valid, beyond question:

    But what makes all this, if this is all it is,
    more than just bearable, in fact, exultation
is the stone that is looked at, and the manchineels,
bitter, poisonous yellow berries, treacherous apples
that look like Eden’s on the tree of knowledge
when the first noun was picked and named and eaten
and the shadow of knowledge defined every edge originating language and then difference,
and subtlety, the snake and contradiction
and the sudden Babel of the manchineel. (62)

30This is the Faustian knowledge, the will to explore what the human mind is capable of, including the recognition of the seduction of the illusion, if illusion it be.

31Once more, Walcott uses a ludic heteroglossia between French and English, now with Latin, and the humble pun, to address ultimate profundities, matters of faith. The passage refers again to translation, and concludes with this:

                                         my longing
for the communion of breakfast, the leafless,
flower-less but crusted bark of the frangipani,
frangere panem, the pain that I break and eat
flower and flour, pain and
bright Easter coming, like the sea’s white communion. (64)

32The artist’s delight in the illusion of the accuracy of language and the power of communication is framed in the knowledge that there is a truth beyond the scrim, to quote the final line of the poem, “that line of light that shines from the other shore” (105). The human condition is necessarily, to a believer, one of imperfect knowledge. The prodigal is in the last analysis the irresponsible one, the fortunate traveller, who takes his patrimony and spends it, returning penniless. What this poem considers is that perhaps that is all the artist is or does. Even to admit the possibility takes courage. Yet the biblical parable tells that the prodigal is welcomed home by his father, forgiven. And in the poem, the doubt is balanced by a conviction that the elation which the world stimulates in the artist cannot be misplaced. Like the heteroglossia which calls into question the artificially imposed generic limits, great art is that which questions itself and seeks the language which is beyond human limitation, the light which is behind the scrim. So, in the end, for Walcott heteroglossia is a strategy in a metaphysical project, for which language is simply one tool.

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M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holqvist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Joachim du Bellay, “Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage,” in Geoffrey Brereton, ed., The Penguin Book of French Verse, vol. 2, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1958, 42-3.

Joseph Brodsky, On Grief and Reason: Essays, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1996.

Paula Burnett, Derek Walcott: Politics and Poetics, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.

John Figueroa, “Omeros,” in Stewart Brown, ed., The Art of Derek Walcott, Bridgend, Glamorgan: Seren Books, 1991, 193-213.

Victor Hugo, Les travailleurs de la mer, Paris: GF-Flammarion, 1980.

Harold Pinter interviewed by Michael Billington, “I’ve written 29 damn plays. Isn’t that enough?” Guardian, London, 14 March 2006, G2, p.11.

Derek Walcott, Collected Poems 1948-1984, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986.

Derek Walcott, speaking at the University of Milan, 22 May 1996, quoted Burnett, 138.

Derek Walcott, Omeros, London: Faber, 1997.

Derek Walcott, The Arkansas Testament, London: Faber, 1988. Derek Walcott, The Prodigal, London: Faber, 2005.

Derek Walcott, Tiepolo’s Hound, London: Faber, 2000.Derek Walcott, What the Twilight Says: Essays, London: Faber, 1998.

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1 II.I, p.150: “In islands like Guernsey the population is made up of people who have spent their lives going round their fields and people who have spent their lives going round the world” (my translation).

2 Ibid. “Mister Lethierry was a man of Guernsey, that’s to say a man of Normandy, that’s to say an Englishman, that’s to say a Frenchman. He had in him this quadruple homeland, submerged and, as it were, drowned in his great country, the ocean” (my translation).

3 Ibid., 151. “jabber a bit in a lot of languages” (my translation).

4 Visiting St. Lucia for the first time, my sense of familiarity transcended my rational awareness of novelty: the past for me included the compelling exposure to Walcott’s art, which (to my surprise, I may add) proved stronger than the newness of the actuality.

5 As he says, “the taste of water is still shared everywhere” [Another Life 7.ii, CP 185].

6 Figueroa says that the poem has “a sort of novelistic structure of a mosaic kind,” that it “tells a story, a complicated story, which in modern times we tend to associate with a novel rather than a poem.” For him it is “much more a novel than an epic,” and he concludes even more firmly, “Omeros is not an epic” [193, 194, 197, 211].

7 See Burnett, chapter 5, “‘The Smell of Our Own Speech:’ The Tool of Language,” for a related discussion of Bakhtin.

8 “Happy the man who like Ulysses has made a good voyage” (my translation).

9 The “familiar strata of folk language,” says Bakhtin, “played such an enormous role in the formulation of novelistic discourse…” [83].

10 See Burnett, 145-6 et seq., for a related discussion.

11 Interview, London, 21 June 1988, quoted Burnett, 314.

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Bibliographical reference

Paula Burnett, “Between Heteroglossia and Irony: Walcott’s “crystal of ambiguities””Commonwealth Essays and Studies, 28.2 | 2006, 23-36.

Electronic reference

Paula Burnett, “Between Heteroglossia and Irony: Walcott’s “crystal of ambiguities””Commonwealth Essays and Studies [Online], 28.2 | 2006, Online since 15 January 2022, connection on 21 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Paula Burnett

Brunel University

Paula Burnett is author of the monograph Derek Walcott: Politics and Poetics (University Press of Florida) and editor of the anthology The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse in English, recently reissued as a Penguin Classic. Her most recent book presents her international EU-funded research project to promote minority literatures, produced in collaboration with the universities of Liège, Regensburg, Palermo, Barcelona and Malaga. The EMLIT Project: European Minority Literatures in Translation (Brunel University Press) publishes texts in nineteen minority languages from across Europe. She is also the author of numerous papers on Walcott (most recently in Callaloo and Agenda), Caribbean literature, and world literature in English. She is a member of the English Department at Brunel University, London, where she has long taught postcolonial literature and creative writing. Since 2000 much of her time has been taken up with her role as founder and editor-in-chief of the university’s free-access interdisciplinary online journal EnterText. Current projects include The Dark Heart, a study of twentieth-century intertexts with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for Manchester UP, and a critical edition for Macmillan Caribbean of Horatio Nelson Huggins’ Hiroona, an epic poem written in 1895.

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