Lost Empire

by Derek Walcott

copyright ©2010 by Derek Walcott

I
And then there was no more Empire all of a sudden.
Its victories were air, its dominions dirt:
Burma, Canada, Egypt, Africa, India, the Sudan.
The map that had seeped its stain on a schoolboy’s shirt
like red ink on a blotter, battles, long sieges.
Dhows and feluccas, hill stations, outposts, flags
fluttering down in the dusk, their golden aegis
went out with the sun, the last gleam on a great crag,
with tiger-eyed turbaned Sikhs, pennons of the Raj
to a sobbing bugle. I see it all come about
again, the tasselled cortege, the clop of the tossing team
with funeral pom-poms, the sergeant major’s shout,
the stamp of boots, then the volley; there is no greater theme
than this chasm-deep surrendering of power
the whited eyes and robes of surrendering hordes,
red tunics, and the great names Sind, Turkistan, Cawnpore,
dust-dervishes and the Saharan silence afterwards.

II
A dragonfly’s biplane settles and there, on the map,
the archipelago looks as if a continent fell
and scattered into fragments; from Pointe du Cap
to Moule à Chique, bois-canot, laurier cannelles,
canoe-wood, spicy laurel, the wind-churned trees
echo the African crests; at night, the stars
are far fishermen’s fires, not glittering cities,
Genoa, Milan, London, Madrid, Paris,
but crab-hunters’ torches. This small place produces
nothing but beauty, the wind-warped trees, the breakers
on the Dennery cliffs, and the wild light that loosens
a galloping mare on the plain of Vieuxfort make us
merely receiving vessels of each day’s grace,
light simplifies us whatever our race or gifts.
I’m content as Kavanagh with his few acres;
for my heart to be torn to shreds like the sea’s lace,
to see how its wings catch colour when a gull lifts.

Notes on the Poem

We mourn the passing of Derek Walcott, Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright, also a recipient of the Griffin Poetry Prize Lifetime Recognition Award. We're grateful that he leaves us the gift of a stunning body of work, from which we've selected "Lost Empire" from White Egrets (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). When Walcott was unable to attend the Griffin presentation of his award, the Griffin trustees assembled a moving tribute to him, featuring words and readings from Carolyn Forché, Michael Ondaatje and Colm Tóibín. Tóibín chose to read "Lost Empire" (which starts at 6:20, but please enjoy the entire tribute). In his introduction, Tóibín noted that the closing lines of the poem reference the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, who "exalted the small place ... over the globe" in his work, as Walcott does here. Indeed, "Lost Empire" takes us swiftly and stirringly from the broad sweep of history to the intimate minutaie of everyday life. From all of our small places, let us celebrate how Walcott taught us to appreciate and venture fearlessly into the wider world, while staying grounded and faithful to home.

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