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Bob Sward's Writer's Friendship Series

Book Reviews

Need to Know



Issue 10: Out on a Limb

Issue 9: The Missing Body

Issue 8: The Lily

Issue 7: Passages

Issue 6: No More Tears

A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Robin Behn

Richard Garcia

John Hennessy

Adrian Matejka

Ayukawa Nobuo

Eunice Odio

Kathryn Rantala

Anna Ross

Mathias Svalina

Larissa Szporluk

Kevin Tsai  

A Master's Search

Tiepolo’s Hound (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
by Derek Walcott  

by Lynne Potts

The bony white dog of Derek Walcott’s 1999 poem, “Tiepolo’s Hound,” is an apparition—a specter, a doppelganger, a haunting memory. This phantom dog stalks his way from the beginning of this 26-section poem to the end, appearing as a persistent, but illusive image – the source of frustration and inspiration.

Two narratives thread their way through the poem. The first is of the painter, Camille Pissarro, born in 1830 to a Jewish family on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. Though his family discourages him from pursuing his love of painting, he eventually leaves with an artist friend to work at his craft in Venezuela. From there he moves to Paris, where he meets other artists and begins painting in the emerging style of the impressionists. Corot and Courbet are his earliest colleagues, but soon he is working with Monet, Renoir, and Cezanne as well. In a brief interlude with Monet in England, he meets and marries his mother’s former maid, Julia, thereafter moving back to France to begin raising a family in the small town of Pontoise. The family grows to seven children and Pissarro struggles to provide, enjoying little success in selling his work. A favorite daughter dies, his wife is suicidal, and debts mount.

Here this narrative gives way to Walcott’s own quest through the museums of Europe to find the painting of a white hound he once saw in a New York art museum. Certain that it must have been a painting either by Tiepolo or Veronese, he searches all their various collectors and archivists to find the painting with “a slash of pink on the inner thigh / of a white hound” (I, 3). Even returning to check once again in New York, he is never able to find the original.

The poem is held together not only by the hound image, but also by melodic language, delivered in coupled couplets (ab ab cd cd ef ef) that provide its tonal framework. “Tidal couplets” Walcott calls them in the fifth stanza of the first section — the sounds that come to his ear as he writes about the Pissarros’ “stroll on Sundays down Dronningens Street/… the salt breeze bringing the sound of the Mission slaves / chanting deliverance from all their sins in tidal couplets of lament and answer.” (I, 1) They are the couplets of the sea, its methodical coming and going, its rising and falling, its bringing in and taking away: “Again I lift the oars / of this couplet, my craft resumes its theme (XIV, 1); “the ordinary couplets of our breath, / ordinary heaven, ordinary earth” (XV, 2).

The couplet resonates with multiple levels of twoness: two stories, two genres, two individuals, two homes, two places. “These little strokes whose syllables confirm/ an altering reality for vision/ on the blank page, or the imagined frame / of a crisp canvas, are not just his own.” (XI, 3) Here, the poet speaks of the shared “alternating” realities for both artists in the poem. While Pissarro painted in the vibrant colors of St. Thomas and the muted tones of French villages, Walcott wove together two languages –the patois of his island, and the English of his adopted homes. Both artists integrated the old with the new, the familiar with the acquired. In the following passage, Walcott imagines Pissarro’s grandfather talking to Camille about his own move from France to St. Thomas:

     At first, the change
of light, the glare, the slaves, the burning seas
after a city built from fog seemed strange,
but then our children come and business
is good, so listen, my son Joseph’s son,
this place is good, away from the world’s noise,
but the old world must never be forgotten.” (IV, 1)

Here, twoness is a mirror image: Pissarro’s grandfather speaks of a migration from fog-like Paris to sun-glazed St. Thomas—the reverse of Pissarro’s own.

The couplets, with their direct or slant end-rhymes, are embedded in a larger scheme of long, rolling lines with varying patterns of stress. Like the sea surrounding the islands of these Caribbean artists, the sound is always changing—its shape rising and falling in paradoxically random patterns. While lines have anywhere from 10 to 15 syllables, no sound sequence is predictable. The overall effect is of movement—quiet, inconspicuous, undulating. In the series below, parallel phrases flow like water, gaining resonance as they accumulate meaning:

Here was a new world: in faith, in form, in feature,
in blaze and shadow, in tints beneath black skin:

the wet light moving down the ebony fissure
of a fisherman’s shoulders as he hauled in a seine,
(IV, 2)

The music is carried forward not only by Walcott’s elaborate and extravagant imagery in words, but also in paintings. "Tiepolo’s " is a poem about a painter by a writer who is a painter himself. The original Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2000 publication contains 26 Walcott watercolors: landscapes, streetscapes, scenes with action, pastorals, and portraits. Colors range from bright to subdued, each picture full of light. It’s the language, however, that gives the book its most vivid coloring: “a cobalt wall of the sea” (II, 2); “a brush reaching into its creamy palette of oranges and ochre” (XV, 4); “rough hills with their receding indigos” (XVII, 4); “April with its orange, yellow, tan, rust, red and vermilion note on old branches” (II, 4); “the olive and umber of wood smoke” (IX, 1). In fact, the poem abounds with imagery belonging to all the senses—several wedged into just a few lines:

even its interiors: bottles of blood-dark claret,
a loaf’s fallen pillar in Chardin, the hushed halls

of Versailles, incredulous fountains
chattering and brimming with astonishment,

where the sand hardens into sodden pavements
and palms into the charcoal sticks of lindens (VII, 3)

The imagery is stunning, but it is the fusion of imagery with sound that gives the poem its consummate power. The following passages illustrate Walcott’s signature talent for bringing these together:

There was not treachery if he turned his back
on the sun that plunges fissures in the fronds

of the feathery immortelles, on a dirt track
with a short cart for equestrian bronze. (XI, 3)

Word sounds borrow from each other and run into one another throughout. Here’s one set of sounds in the passage above: “sun, plunges, fissures, fronds, feathery, bronze.” And another: “fissures, immortelles, equestrian; treachery, feathery.”

Lynne Potts is a Boston poet who works as a professional writer for publishers, public institutions, and private non-profit agencies. Her poems have appeared in a number of publications including Art Times, Fauquier Poetry Journal, River Oak Review, Del Sol Review, and University of Alabama's new publication Poetry, Memoire, Story.


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