Sit. Feast On Your Life; and Derek Walcott.

Were there a significant non-consumer surprise for each of us each and every Christmas, what a joy that might be! This Christmas I received a non-consumer surprise, not surprisingly, from a poem: Upstate by Derek Walcott, the West Indian 1992 Nobel  Prize Laureate, born in St. Lucia in 1930.

Upstate,  published in the 1981 book The Fortunate Traveller  has made me so aware of Walcott’s lyric mastery in a way I was not so conscious of  in his well known poem Love after Love published in 1976 in Sea Grapes. It is also an unlikely surprise because it describes a foreign landscape to him, the United States, and not his own home landscape – the Caribbean -which inhabits  and informs so many of his poems.

As a teaser, here are three lines from Upstate:

I must put the cold pebbles from the spring
upon my tongue to learn her language,
to talk like birch or aspen confidently.

Oh, to do that! To  learn from water and rock to speak a language of trees, confidently.  To be that sure, that true.

Walcott achieved a certain, and I’m sure unwelcome,  notoriety in 2009 when stories of sexual harassment charges, one at Harvard in 1981 and one at Boston University settled in 1996, resurfaced in a nasty election campaign for the post of Oxford  Professor of Poetry. As a result Walcott withdrew from the race and the eventual winner, Ruth Patel, resigned soon after winning  the post because of emails that implicated her in bringing the old stories out in the open , something she had repeatedly denied doing during the campaign.

Walcott achieved some significant measure of reprieve from the Oxford imbroglio when, later in 2009, the University of Alberta awarded him a three year post as A Distinguished Scholar in Residence and, especially, when his book White Egrets won the 2011 T.S. Eliot poetry prize for poetry.

If readers of poetry know Walcott through his poems it is most likely to be through or include Love after Love. So, before I discuss his poetic genius demonstrated in the lesser known poem Upstate let’s have a  a quick look at his acknowledged classic. Used by countless speakers and workshop leaders, including myself, David Whyte and Kim Rosen, who use poetry to open up peoples’ self- understandings, Love after Love is in all aspects a remarkable poem but made more remarkable perhaps by its poetic antecedent, George Herbert’s  17th Century poem Love III.

It’s thanks to my former wife Susan who pointed out that Walcott’s poem was written in reference (after) to Herbert’s poem,  that I made this connection a few years ago. But what an important one because it also reveals Walcott’s religious and Christian sensibilities.

Here is Walcott’s celebrated poem Love after Love:

 The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

 and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

 all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

 How often I have watched participants in my addiction recovery poetry workshops recognize themselves in this poem! As they start the recovery process they begin to see another self that their addiction kept under lock and key – somewhat like the bluebird in Charles Bukowski’s searing poem Bluebird.

How often in our urge to make it in the world, to achieve so-called success do we bury what we feel is the less acceptable part of ourselves (which can be exceptionally beautiful or ugly) only later to discover we must reclaim it if we are to live a healthy and integrated life? What grace when that rejected part reappears, when as Walcott says, you give back your heart/ to itself to the stranger who has loved you/ all your life.

But Walcott also goes on to say something even more important. He says it in a way that has seemed mysterious to me but was explained by David Whyte to me in a workshop. Walcott demands that we Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,/ the photographs, the desperate  notes,/ peel your own image off the mirror./Sit. Feast on your life.

As I understand this, with Whyte’s help, Walcott is saying we can’t be selective when we wholeheartedly embrace our life, when we want to integrate all of the selves of the self. We must accept all parts of our life even the shameful, painful, destructive parts along with all the joyful ones; we don’t get to pick and chose! Then he adjures: Sit. Feast on your life. All of our life. We must own all aspects. It doesn’t mean we have to relive those broken destructive times but that we must own them, not be defined by them as we move forward in a more healthy way, but we must own them. And it isn’t easy to do.

In that last declarative line that brooks no refusal – Sit. Feast on your life. – I hear the strongest echo of Herbert’s poem written in the 1600’s! Herbert’s poem is more overtly religious but demands a similar surrender! Here is Love III:

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew  back

             Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

            From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

             If I lacked anything.

“A guest, “I answered, worthy to be here.”

             Love said, “You shall be he.”

I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,

            I cannot look on thee.”

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

            “Who made the eyes but I?”


“Truth, Lord, but I have marred them; let my shame

            Go where it doth deserve.”

“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame/”

            My dear, then I will serve.”

“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”

            So I did sit and eat.

 Call Love what you will in this poem – God – Higher Power, the Beloved, your best self – it insists that no matter what we have done in our life we are worthy of sitting at Love’s feast!

Walcott’s poem Upstate comes from a different part of his poetic makeup. Not so overtly plain spoken, spare and ”teachy” it plumbs a much more complex syntax and lyrical depth.

A knife blade of cold air keeps prying
the bus window open. The spring country
won’t be shut out. The door to the john
keeps banging. There’re a few of us:
a stale-drunk or stoned woman in torn jeans,
a Spanish-American salesman, and, ahead,
a black woman folded in an overcoat.
Emptiness makes a companionable aura
through the upstate villages – repetitive,
but crucial in their little differences
of fields, wide yards with washing, old machinery –
where people live
with the highway’s patience and flat certainty.

Sometimes I feel sometimes
the Muse is leaving, the Muse is leaving America.
Her tired face is tired of iron fields,
its hollows sing the mines of Appalachia,
she is a chalk-thin miner’s wife with knobbled elbows,
her neck tendons taut as banjo strings,
she who was once a freckled palomino with a girl’s mane
galloping blue pastures plinkety-plunkety,
staring down at a tree-stunned summer lake,
when all the corny calendars were true.
The departure comes over me in smoke
from the far factories.

But were the willows lyres, the fanned-out pollard willows
with clear translation of water into song,
were the starlings as heartbroken as nightingales,
whose sorrow piles the looming thunderhead
over the Catskills, what would be their theme?
The spring hills are sun-freckled, the chaste white barns flash
through screening trees the vigour of her dream,
like a white plank bridge over a quarrelling brook.
Clear images! Direct as your daughters
in the way their clear look returns your stare,
unarguable and fatal –
no, it is more sensual.
I am falling in love with America.

I must put the cold small pebbles from the spring
upon my tongue to learn her language,
to talk like birch or aspen confidently.
I will knock at the widowed door
of one of these villages
where she will admit me like a broad meadow,
like a blue space between mountains,
and holding her arms at the broken elbows
brush the dank hair from a forehead
as warm as bread or as a homecoming.

The first stanza is deceptive. It reads like a typical modern narrative poem without a lot of tropes or lyrical movement but enough to keep it from being uninteresting – a risk of stripped-down anecdotal or narrative poems. And his words convey such a palpable sense of alienation.

He hits a different stride in the second stanza. He uses a strange repetition Sometimes I feel sometimes, not recommended for a new poet, but here adds a wonderful second meaning: a play on sometimes I feel sometimes if you read it as a poetic line and don’t continue through the grammatical line Sometimes I feel sometimes/ the Muse is leaving, the Muse is leaving America. Wonderful unexpected start.

Then, he shows such lyrical virtuosity as he compares the muse’s tired face to the post industrial geography and people of America. Its hollows sing the mines of Appalachia. Ouch! She is a chalk-thin miner’s wife with knobbled elbows. Ouch. Then a coup de grace: The departure [the muses’ departure] comes over me in smoke/ from the far factories. What a lyrical expression of lost innocence. This takes my breath away.

Now the poem switches, turns. A new feeling  comes into the poem, perhaps indicated by the suggestive Sometimes I feel sometimes..! And what syntactical risk he takes with use of were, which starts a question but doesn’t finish it and then further, as he adds modifying sentences that deepen the metaphorical intensity, he finishes the question: what would be their theme?

His use of lyre conjures elegiac songs and the description of nightingales  whose sorrow piles u the looming thunderhead would again suggest a sorrow-filled elegiac theme. But no. He gives us lovely spring images. Hills sun-freckled (where did the coal mines go?) and a chaste white barn. Clear Images! he declares. And then he compares it so unexpectedly to his daughters – their chaste innocence perhaps?! Where did that come from? Those images, like the looks of his daughters which he calls fatal and then amends to sensual, lead to his startling declaration – his utter turn around – I am falling in love with America.

A poem that started with such feelings of alienation – a blade of cold air keeps prying, a bus full of strange strangers and a fallen landscape now becomes a love story. He sees the other side. A springtime that was cold and couldn’t be shut out now turns into something warm and welcoming.  A marriage of opposites. And he enters the landscape boldly like lover. Such pleasure I receive from the first three lines of the last stanza:

I must put the cold small pebbles from the spring
upon my tongue to learn her language,
to talk like birch or aspen confidently.

And I notice the double-play on the spring. This could be a fresh water spring as well as reference back to Spring the season. No matter what,  he has transformed something outside of him and turned it into a  life giving language inside him. He is no longer an alien in a strange land. He is suddenly, unexpectedly coming home. His skilful transformations and  connections back to the poem’s beginnings keep coming:

I will knock at the widowed door
of one of those villages
where she will admit me like a broad meadow,
like a blue space between the mountains,

Again he has personified America with the landscape but in such positive terms as opposed to the more negative ones in the second stanza. But to make this personification even more impactful he includes a reference he used in stanza one but in such a different context. And this for me is the heart of the poem, where I can mine the most from it.

And holding her arms at the broken elbows
Brush the dank hair from a forehead
As warm as bread or as a homecoming.

Ah! The shock of recognition in the reference back to America as the chalk-thin miner’s wife with knobbled elbows with the mention of broken elbows but now the context, instead of being cold and almost sinister, turns those knobbly elbows into welcoming arms even though the elbows are broken. America may be still broken as she seemed in stanza two but she can still be sun-freckled, chaste yet a lover welcoming and loving in spite of it all.

Now as I sit quietly and reflect I see something I never saw before. I see how Upstate connects deeply to Love after Love. What I thought were such different poems share a theme. In both poems, what at first seems strange and alien becomes something lovely, something kin, even in its brokenness. In Upstate the discordant bus ride, the seemingly unappealing, desolate landscape will reveal unexpected beauty and welcome you home even if its elbows are broken. And in Love after Love, a stranger becomes yourself, becomes something to love, to welcome home and bring to the feast that is your whole life.