19 August 2008

Derek Walcott on Jean Rhys

Since Derek Walcott was taken off the reading list, I've been pouting as I bought the book.  So while I was thumbing through my copy of Wide Sargasso Sea, I found this poem in the back and I thought I'd share it with you.  If I understand it correctly, the speaker is looking at a photograph and imagining what Jean Rhys's world was like and how the conception of this novel was engendered.  There appears to be allusions to events or places in Rhys's life upon which Brooke might be able to shed some light?

Jean Rhys

In their faint photographs
mottled with chemicals,
like the left hand of some spinster aunt,
they have drifted to the edge
of verandahs in Whistlerian
white, their jungle turned tea-brown--
even its spiked palms --
their features pale,
to be pencilled in:
bone-collared gentlemen
with spiked moustaches
and their wives embayed in the wickerwork
armchairs, all looking coloured
from the distance of a century
beginning to groan sideways from the axe stroke!

Their bay horses blacken
like spaniels, the front lawn a beige 
carpet, brown moonlight and a moon
so sallow, so pharmaceutical
that her face is a feverish child's,
some malarial angel
whose grave still cowers
under a fury of bush,
a mania of wild yams
wrangling to hide her from ancestral churchyards.

And the sigh of that child
is white as an orchid
on a crusted log
in the bush of Dominica,
a V of Chinese white
meant for the beat of a seagull
over a sepia of Cornwall, 
as the white hush between two sentences.

Sundays!  Their furnace
of boredom after church.
A maiden aunt canoes through lilies of clouds 
in a Carib hammock, to a hymn's metronome,
and the child on the varnished, lion-footed couch
sees the hills dip and straighten with each lurch.
The green-leaved uproar of the century
turns dim as the Atlantic, a rumourous haze
behind the lime trees, breakers
advancing in decorous, pleated lace;
the cement grindstone of the afternoon
turns slowly, sharpening her sense,
the bay below is green as calalu, stewing Sargasso.

In that fierce hush
between Dominican mountains
the child expects a sound
from a butterfly clipping itself to a bush
like a gold earring to a black maid's ear--
one who goes down to the village, visiting,
whose pink dress wilts like a flower between the limes.

There are logs
wrinkled like the hand of an old woman
who wrote with a fine courtesy of that world
when grace was common as malaria,
when the gas lanterns' hiss on the verandah
drew the aunts out like moths
doomed to be pressed in a book, to fall
into the brown oblivion of an album,
embroiderers of silence
for whom the arches of the Thames,
Parliament's needles,
and the petit-point reflections of London Bridge
fade on the hammock cushions from the sun,
where one night
a child stares at the windless candles flame
from the corner of a lion-footed couch
at the erect white light,
her right hand married to Jane Eyre,
foreseeing that her own white wedding dress
will be white paper.

1 comment:

Brooke Foged said...

Well, in one of her letters, Rhys told her editor that she had included some old pictures of herself, which had somehow become spotted with black dots and would probably not be useful.

Also, Jean Rhys had a spinster aunt whom she called Auntie B (which, coincidentally, is what I plan to force my future nieces and nephews to call me when I'm a spinster aunt). Auntie B's real name was Brenda Lockhart. She was accident-prone (also just like me), the identical twin sister of Rhys' mother. Rhys suspected that Auntie B disliked her because she hated to sew and because she spent too much time reading books.

Um, Rhys lived in Cornwall for a while. I think that's all I can contribute. Lovely poem.