Slowing Down with Derek Walcott
Sometimes I Need to Slow Down
If something sits on my desk long enough, I will read it. I may get to it quickly, or it may take me months or years to get around to it. I am rarely programmatic in my reading, by which I mean that most of my reading is guided by impulse, taste, and mood. I tend to read multiple genres simultaneously, letting authors and ideas cross-fertilize, creating wonderful or monstrous imaginings and insights. I mix old favorites with new voices. Whether the result is a cacophony or a symphony is not always easy to foresee.
I have spent a month wallowing in science fiction short stories and novels, culminating in Neal Stephenson's Seveneves. Stephenson writes better than most. His Baroque cycle is a wonderful dive into a time and into conflicts that continue to resonate today, and reamde was everything one could desire in an international crime thriller and more. However, Seveneves has left me unsure. I can't say honestly whether I like it or not. The "races" of the last third of the book leave me unconvinced and uncomfortable. The link between genes and culture, predisposition and lived behavior, are not as clear to me as they are in the long experiment of the book's cultural remnants.
I am taking a break from sci-fi now, awaiting the arrival of Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora. My father is reading it now, and I am next in the familial queue. Robinson is another wonderful mind whose art is not stunted or crippled by genre conventions. His Mars series and Years of Rice and Salt were impressive, although very different.
Anyway, I am taking a break from the rush of science fisction, which tends to move rapidly to a climax, to something slower, more meditative. In short, for me the perfect break from comet-riding cannibals and genetically engineered hyper-civilized Neanderthals is poetry. And that brought me to Derek Walcott's Tiepolo's Hound, a book which has been sitting next to Cesaire Aime on my desk for two or three years now. Before today, I had glanced through Walcott's paintings in the book, but not committed to reading it, not out of a dislike for Walcott, but due to whims and choices that kept delaying it's entry into my stack of books I am currently reading.
Tiepolo's Hound, Book One
Tiepolo's Hound is one of Derek Walcott's long, narrative works. It is centered on the quests of two artists, a painter from St. Thomas named Camille Pissarro and a poet-narrator we identify with Derek Walcott. Both artists are from the West Indies with connections to distant, imperial metropoles and aesthetic commitments and attractions.
We meet Pissarro first. The artist walks with his family on a Sunday outing on Saint Thomas. The island reveals its colonial nature--Dutch arches, Mission slaves, a variety of exiles and distant homes. Pissarro's family is of an exiled people. His father, Abraham Gabriel Pissarro, is a Sephardic Jew from Portugal. His mother, Rachel Manzana-Pomie, is from the Dominican Republic, and they are together on Saint Thomas.
"Pisarros from the ghetto of Braganza
who fled the white hoods of the Inquisition
for the bay's whitecaps, for the folding cross
of a white herring gull over the Mission
droning its passages from Exodus."
The family is followed by a dog: "A mongrel follows them, black as its shadow". They walk in their neighborhood, silent "as its Christian bells resound".
The Pissarro's family stroll is not happening right now. It is part of the past, from "days of cane carts, the palms' high parasols". Jacob-Abraham-Camille Pissarro, (or Pisarro) was born July 10, 1830, in Charlotte Amalie on Saint Thomas. When he was 12 years old he was sent to a Parisian boarding school, and when he returned home he wanted to be a painter. He returned to France, studying under a number of masters, and is today known as one of the fathers of Impressionism.
Impressionism is the first great modern revolution in painting. It advocated an exit from the studio where "naturalists" recreated scenes at a distance from the scene itself and into the open air. Painting in the open air, they explored the effects of light and air on perception. Camille returned to the same scene at the same moment of the day over and over again in order to find its essential nature and recreate that nature on his canvas. The plein air painters subjected themselves to the heartless discipline of nature, where light, season, and weather continued to change even as they attempted to capture the impression of a moment.
The West Indies and the Caribbean Sea are often defined and described in terms of the play of light on vegetation, water, and surfaces. That Tiepolo's Hound begins with a West Indian Impressionist who is, as a Jew, somewhat alien on Saint Thomas, as an anarchist somewhat alien in France, and as an Impressionist somewhat alien to the prior artistic tradition of Europe invites a consideration of the historical and cultural complexities of the colonial artist in his/her relationships to their home, the imperial power, and the available cultural traditions and choices that must be made and managed in forging an identity that is both personal and communicable to others.
Painting in Light
A Final Quote
I will end this entry with a final quote by Camille Pisarro.
"We are all the subjects of impressions, and some of us seek to convey the impressions to others. In the art of communicating impressions lies the power of generalizing without losing that logical connection of parts to the whole which satisfies the mind."
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