Traveling Figures and Figures of Travel in “The Arkansas Testament”: Derek Walcott’s Quarrel with the American South
Abstract

This article argues that Derek Walcott’s title poem from the Arkansas Testament (1987), a poetic sequence in which he debates acquiring American citizenship, plays with contrasts of scale—both in literal, geographical terms and on the micro-level of poetic figures—to record his complex allegiances to America and to his native St. Lucia. In addition to contrasts of scale, which themselves imply dynamism and movement, Walcott employs metaphors of travel and transportation, figures which also migrate across his poetic sequences. He uses these kinetic figures to document what the United States, as both historical place and artistic abstraction, comes to represent for him as a black expatriate. One of Walcott’s greatest influences, W.B. Yeats, famously wrote that “We make out of the quarrel with others rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Recording his quarrel with himself, Walcott uses the language of poetry to weigh the relative sizes of his conflicting concerns: can he, in good conscience, become an American given the racial history of the US South? Regardless of America’s potential for racial progress, is citizenship necessarily a betrayal, or diminution, of his Antillean origins? Caught in the self-proclaimed paradox of existing as insider and outsider, traveler and potential citizen, local writer and global figure, Walcott troubles these same categories. Turning to the mobility of metaphor and to his poetry’s dramatic juxtapositions of scale, Walcott asks not only whether he can acquire US citizenship but whether he can belong—or wants to belong—to a Global South.


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