Can North and South Meet in the Middle?

by christinahall2

North and South by Derek Walcott

Christina Hall

Can the North and South ever reconcile? After all the hurt, pillaging, and attached stigmas, and despite their similarities, can one ever truly feel comfortable in the presence of the other?  In his poem North and South, Derek Walcott invokes imagery and events from the two hemispheres to demonstrate the discourse that continues to exist within the people who inhabit the different halves of the globe. Raised in the “global south” of the Caribbean, in a former British colony, and being the descendant of slaves and slave owners, Walcott has first hand knowledge of the prejudices that exist between the North and South, and he applies these experiences to his work.  Within the first stanza of the poem we are made aware the speaker is “a colonial upstart at the end of an empire,” sent out to navigate the unknown of what the future holds.
He ties the two halves of the world together, in the first and second stanzas, through the descriptive images of past empires retreating: the raj, the Reich, the Roman Empire’s destruction of Tyre, and Alexandria.  Moments of total destruction, in both the north and south, continue to resonate throughout the poem: Sheridan Square (stanza four), the civil war battlefields of Virgina, Treblinka (stanza eleven).  Both places have similar sad stories.  Both have unmarked graves and un-named places of death, with few telltale remnants left behind to remind the world what once was.  The speaker is one of those artifacts that continue to exist within a world that does not want him (the north), and one that he has left behind (the south).
As much as he ties the two together, he also describes them in very opposing ways.  The forth stanza describes Manhattan, “a cold one…with its soiled ice oozing into black puddles.”  The speaker invites us into this world, the first time we as readers are addressed in the poem, and shares with us the closeness he feels to death in this world.  In contrast, with stanza seven we see a vibrant, “raw” culture that he claims to prefer.  He thinks of Europe “as a gutter of autumn leaves choked,” then recognizes that northerners going south would be just as skeptical, fearing such things as malaria (stanza nine).  The speaker describes his life as having “turned into exile,” (stanza ten) and claims to find no comfort in his new surroundings.  Images of swastikas, concentration camp ovens (stanza eleven), the “white-robed horsemen” of the KKK (stanza twelve), all add to further explain his discontent and uncomfort in this area of the world.  Even the buds and crocus of spring are undercut and intertwined with war-time descriptions.
The poem finishes with the promise of a new spring, yet within which the seeds of racism continue to exist.  “The world will be one season older but no wiser.” (stanza three)  Have we learnt anything from the past?  Can or will we ever let it go?


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