April 27, 2007

"Mass Man" by Derek Walcott: An Appreciation

Derek WalcottOne of the most daunting challenges for a Caribbean writer is the creation of authentic patterns of language which are grounded in the experience and lives of his culture. For the elder poets such as Walcott, Brathwaite, Guillen, and Carter, the demeaning language of colonialism which changed people into property, and which, by its etymology did not contain the horrors of slavery and the Middle Passage, had to be transformed. A new alphabet forged in the rhythms of the Caribbean landscape and life (spring and the blossoming of trumpet trees, summer and the threat of hurricanes, harvest with the smell of burning cane fields, and the dry season with poinsettias and Junkanoo) had to be created. This "nation language" had to be as protean as the Calypsos of Carnival, which provided models from which many of the writers drew their inspiration. And yet these models were insufficient because Calypsos, as a part of popular culture, did not lend themselves to the exploration of the immediate and the historical and the possibilities that this combination engenders--a trait that is common to most successful poems.

Another problem that these poets faced from the lack of viable poetic models, which unlike poets such as Eliot and Pound, who saw themselves as "inheritors" of the Western canon, was an aesthetic which honored the past and acknowledged the local landscape. So, they had to create a Caribbean aesthetic. This self-consciousness also created its own dynamic. Many poets, who used the local to explore larger emblematic themes, were aware that with the history of colonialism, the very subjects they sought to elevate through poetic discourse were denigrated by the official culture. This is the dilemma that Walcott confronts in "Mass Man," where he uses the spectacle of Carnival to explore the role of the artist, who is a part of a celebration--a Creole invention that similar to his own creative process and to which he feels a certain affinity--within a culture which does not value reflection, yet which gives its participants a certain amount of dignity. This ambiguity is reflected in the diction that ranges from mock Elizabethan to Trinidadian Creole, the imagery of exotic non-Caribbean "lions" to indigenous fruit bats, and the use of Christian ritual as a metaphor for uniting these seemingly disparate elements of Caribbean life into a coherent vision.

Mass Man

Through a great lion's head clouded by mange

a black clerk growls.

Next, a gold wired peacock withholds a man,

a fan, flaunting its ovalled jeweled eyes;

What metaphors!

What coruscating, mincing fantasies!

The point of view of the speaker is almost that of an outsider who is so seemingly detached from Carnival that he appears to be mocking the spectacle that transforms a "black clerk" into a lion, albeit "clouded by mange" and resorts to language that undercuts any sense of grandeur. Yet by the use of hyperbole, "What metaphors!" the speaker demonstrates his unease. The contrast between the extended vowels in "clouded," "growls," "gold" and "withholds" which imply awe rather than contempt, and the dismissive, sharp sounds of "What coruscating, mincing fantasies!" are indicative of the speaker's discomfort rather than the inherent inferiority of the subjects which by their very nature suggest transport.

Hector Mannix, water works clerk, San Juan, has entered a lion.

Boysie, two golden mangoes, bobbing for breastplates, barges

like Cleopatra down her river, making style.

"Join us," they shout, "O God, child, you can't dance?"

But somewhere in that whirlwind's radiance

a child, rigged like a bat, collapses, sobbing.

In the second stanza, the revelation of the names of the revelers, "Hector Mannix" and "Boysie" reveals the level of intimacy and perhaps the cause of the speaker's unease. He knows Hector Mannix is not a lion and that Boysie with "two golden mangoes, bobbing for breastplates" is not Cleopatra, yet they are "making style" which means "showing off'" and also the raison d'etre of Carnival --to create a Creole culture and language without the constraints of colonialism. With the disclosure, "Join us," they shout." the speaker's cover is blown. "Hector Mannix" or "Boysie" knows the speaker who is distancing himself from the parade, and in trying to discern his reasons for not joining, they conclude, "O God, child, you can't dance?"

The speaker's reluctance is caused by his awareness of a "child, rigged like a bat," with whom the speaker feels an intimate connection, and whose existence is unknown to revelers because they are caught up in the celebration.

But I am dancing, look, from an old gibbet

my bull-whipped body swings, a metronome!

Like a fruit-bat dropped in the silk-cotton's shade,

my mania, my mania is a terrible calm.

Within the poet's memory, the suffering child becomes a metaphor for suffering of which the revelers are unaware and the horrors of slavery which he remembers, "But I am dancing, look, from an old gibbet/ my bull-whipped body swings, a metronome!" The speaker claims an identity with the revelers, the sobbing child, and the hanged slave and this produces a "mania" which is "a terrible calm."

Upon your penitential morning,

some skull must rub its memory with ashes,

some mind must squat down howling in your dust,

some hand must crawl and recollect your rubbish,

someone must write your poems.

The diction has clearly changed from the first stanza for the speaker is fully aware of the implications of the event. For even while the revelers are celebrating the last day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, "the penitential morning," will follow. This penitential morning also extends to penultimate morning of "dust to dust" and "ashes to ashes" of mourning and "howling" which the poet in the midst of life is recollecting. The poet serves as a witness to the present, a link to the past and prescient voice of the future.

The creation of a poem, especially by a writer who shows a high level of metacognition such as Derek Walcott, always carries with it a sense of absurdity because of the artifice, intimacy and distortion of metaphor. In the morning, "Hector Mannix" will become another faceless, "water works clerk," but for a brief moment in the Carnival, he was a "lion" and "Boysie" was Cleopatra. The language and the mask elevated and distorted their identities. But what is a true identity when that identity is in the process of being created? To an outsider, it may seem to be a parade of "coruscating, mincing fantasies" and to the participants it is a moment of "making style." For the poet, however, it is a time to experience meaning in the rituals of a culture and to discern the patterns that emerging out of the matrix of the past, present and future.

Podcast of Geoffrey Philp reading "Mass Man" by Derek Walcott

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Derek Walcott

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