A Poem By Derek Walcott

January 13, 2024
2 mins read

Forest of Europe
Friday, November 2, 2007.
By Derek Walcott
The last leaves fell like notes from a pianoand left their ovals echoing in the ear;with gawky music stands, the winter forestlooks like an empty orchestra, its linesruled on these scattered manuscripts of snow.The inlaid copper laurel of an oakshines though the brown-bricked glass above your headas bright as whisky, while the wintry breathof lines from Mandelstam, which you recite,uncoils as visibly as cigarette smoke.”The rustling of ruble notes by the lemon Neva.”Under your exile’s tongue, crisp under heel,the gutturals crackle like decaying leaves,the phrase from Mandelstam circles with lightin a brown room, in barren Oklahoma.There is a Gulag Archipelagounder this ice, where the salt, mineral springof the long Trail of Tears runnels these plainsas hard and open as a herdsman’s facesun-cracked and stubbled with unshaven snow.Growing in whispers from the Writers’ Congress,the snow circles like cossacks round the corpseof a tired Choctaw till it is a blizzardof treaties and white papers as we losesight of the single human through the cause.So every spring these branches load their shelves,like libraries with newly published leaves,till waste recycles them—paper to snow—but, at zero of suffering, one mindlasts like this oak with a few brazen leaves.As the train passed the forest’s tortured icons,the floes clanging like freight yards, then the spiresof frozen tears, the stations screeching steam,he drew them in a single winters’ breathwhose freezing consonants turned into stone.He saw the poetry in forlorn stationsunder clouds vast as Asia, through districtsthat could gulp Oklahoma like a grape,not these tree-shaded prairie halts but spaceso desolate it mocked destinations.Who is that dark child on the parapetsof Europe, watching the evening river mintits sovereigns stamped with power, not with poets,the Thames and the Neva rustling like banknotes,then, black on gold, the Hudson’s silhouettes?From frozen Neva to the Hudson pours,under the airport domes, the echoing stations,the tributary of emigrants whom exilehas made as classless as the common cold,citizens of a language that is now yours,and every February, every “last autumn”,you write far from the threshing harvestersfolding wheat like a girl plaiting her hair,far from Russia’s canals quivering with sunstroke,a man living with English in one room.The tourist archipelagoes of my Southare prisons too, corruptible, and thoughthere is no harder prison than writing verse,what’s poetry, if it is worth its salt,but a phrase men can pass from hand to mouth?From hand to mouth, across the centuries,the bread that lasts when systems have decayed,when, in his forest of barbed-wire branches,a prisoner circles, chewing the one phrasewhose music will last longer than the leaves,whose condensation is the marble sweatof angels’ foreheads, which will never drytill Borealis shuts the peacock lightsof its slow fan from L.A. to Archangel,and memory needs nothing to repeat.Frightened and starved, with divine feverOsip Mandelstam shook, and everymetaphor shuddered him with ague,each vowel heavier than a boundary stone,”to the rustling of ruble notes by the lemon Neva,”but now that fever is a fire whose glowwarms our hands, Joseph, as we grunt like primatesexchanging gutturals in this wintry caveof a brown cottage, while in drifts outsidemastodons force their systems through the snow.
Copyright of Derek Walcott.
Arguably, The West Indies’ greatest writer and intellectual, Derek Walcott was born in St. Lucia in 1930. He is the author of more than twenty collections of poems and plays, including Omeros , The Arkansas Testament  and The Bounty. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992.
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