The scope and significance of the Nobel Prize winner’s illustrious career are well represented by the new volume of his selected works, a hearty tome bringing together poems from sixteen collections spanning more than half a century. The people and spirit of St. Lucia, the island where Walcott was born and spent the first half of his life, are omnipresent in his work—few poets can write as prolifically and masterfully about the “exiling sea” and “printless beach”—as is the legacy of French and British colonialism, at once harrowing and, for Walcott, a fact of life. Descended from British colonists and African slaves, he writes in the famed “A Far Cry from Africa” that he is “poisoned with the blood of both,” “divided to the vein.” This tension of loyalties and traditions runs throughout his work, and Walcott’s oeuvre may indeed represent the greatest English-language testament to Caribbean life in the twentieth century, affirming that “islands can only exist / If we have loved in them,” regardless of the colonial names collected by “diarists” and “travellers.” A poet of sensitivity and subtlety, few subjects have gone unexplored by Walcott in his career—family, desire, the self, and the intricacies of multiple Western cultures are among topics he’s examined. His is a historic contribution to literature, and this new edition confirms Walcott’s early ambitions: “I pretended subtly to lose myself in crowds / knowing my passage would alter their reflection…”
This book review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2014.