Reading: Pentecost by Derek Walcott

A challenging poem by Derek Walcott (1930-2017), the magnificent poet and social activist from St. Lucia who received the 1992 Nobel Prize for literature. I read a complex poem entitled Pentecost:

Better a jungle in the head
than rootless concrete.
Better to stand bewildered
by the fireflies’ crooked street;

winter lamps do not show
where the sidewalk is lost,
nor can these tongues of snow
speak for the Holy Ghost;

the self-increasing silence
of words dropped from a roof
points along iron railings,
direction, if not proof.

But best is this night surf
with slow scriptures of sand,
that sends, not quite a seraph,
but a late cormorant,

whose fading cry propels
through phosphorescent shoal
what, in my childhood gospels,
used to be called the Soul.

The Pentecost “commemorates the emanation of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles”. Derek opens with a proverb that is usually about birds (better a sparrow in the hand than a pigeon on the roof) and adapts it to the reality of his Caribbean life. I think he is talking about bad roads: crooked street, a lost sidewalk, which he clearly prefers to a rootless, lifeless concrete jungle.

So far so good. But what about the Holy Ghost (lost – Ghost is a delicious joke, the rhyme makes it sound like ghast!) But on the dangerous and slippery winter roads (hence, back in the States, not on St. Lucia) the Holy ghost can’t emanate not yet. Follows the central stanza about the silence of words dropped from a roof. The word of God? In Judaism, Pentacost refers to Mozes receiving the Ten Commandments. The silent words give a direction, the iron railings seem to show the way to salvation (what else does the Holy ghost want to tell us?)

Follows a beautiful stanza. Not an Angel appears but a large voracious dark-colored long-necked seabird with a distensible pouch for holding fish. The bird’s cry fades in the shallow glistening water to evoke the wonderful rhyme with what we usually associate with ‘deep’, the Soul. The jettisoned words give some direction, but the real deal is the cormorant, the Holy Ghost/Spirit whose sublime fading cry is what fuels/propels the feeling of soul.

Reading: Pentecost by Derek Walcott was originally published on Meandering home

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