Walcott is perhaps at his best when he is most autobiographical. He seems to be working on this thesis – What is history? What is identity? –for the Caribbean islanders as he composes, integrates and sumps up his most mature thoughts in each succeeding collection of poems.
The poem, “Names”, which appears in Sea Grapes and can be read in full here, shows his preoccupations with the same theme, and he starts the poem with a sense of his own history that is contained in the sea surrounding the islands.
He negates the fact that identity can be named, for he has “no nouns” with which to introduce himself. His “race” can be interpreted as his community or his tribe; it is also the personal race that he is running towards an individual identity.
The identity of the post-colonial poet in the English language is further compounded by the fact that he comes from the French-speaking part of the islands.
He cannot deny his French heritage where he was taught to say the words “moubain,” “cerise” and “baie-la”, and subsequently understands them through their English equivalents. Sound plays a vital role in this poem, for Walcott talks of the untrained “fresh green voices” learning and mispronouncing, while the original languages of the natives are swept away.
The black people may try to find their origins once again, but the poet ruefully admits that “the wind bends our natural inflections”. Walcott often repeats words and entire phrases to emphasise a search that seems to yield no results. When he repeats that “the mind was halved by horizon”, he, as an intellectual, perceives that his world has indeed been divided into white and black by colonial history, language, education and racial prejudice.
Thus, his search for a past previous to colonial history is futile. The exotic cities of Benares, Canton or Benin that once held sway over the world are lost in the recesses of time. Again the poet asks the soul-searching questions, “Have we melted into a mirror, / leaving our souls behind”.
It is typical that as a twentieth-century poet, he tries to focus on various worlds – the reality of the present and its fantasy is reflection, and the past in his own imagination. Yet he is not able to arrive at any satisfactory conclusion.