Review of “Mass Man” by Derek Walcott
Mass Man by Derek Walcott, is a poem written in free verse, that describes some aspects of playing mass in a Caribbean setting while alluding to the history behind the celebrations. In the poem Walcott’s role is that of an observer. He is on the outside meticulously processing all that he witnesses while procuring it in his memory so that it can later be recorded for posterity. No detail is too inconsequential; no action above scrutiny.
As an observer of a custom whose history is tied to the oppression of the people who created it, Walcott is not celebrating with his countrymen, rather, he is mocking that they celebrate their freedom by impersonating and imitating their former oppressors. Walcott’s very description of the things that he sees is therefore derisive and laden with double meaning. In stanza one of the poem, Walcott is showing how black men, the ordinary descendants of slaves, are trying to imitate those who once enslaved them, via their mass costumes.
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“Through a great lion’s head clouded by mange / a black clerk growls. At first glance, it reads that a black man, who is a clerk, is wearing a costume that is supposed to be the head of a great lion, but instead the costume looks haggard and diseased. Its symbolic representation however, is tied to the literal representation through the common history that unite both connotation.
The black clerk represents the slaves that once inhabited the island, whereas the lion’s head denote their British oppressors. That the lion’s head is “clouded by mange” suggests the imperfection of the great British conquerors. Next, a gold-wired peacock withholds a man” indicates that the costume is overpowering the man who occupies its space. Here Walcott continues with his allusion to slaves and slave owners. The slave owners, like the peacock were proud, believed themselves superior, and exercised control over the slaves, much like the costume is getting the better of the man. Just like the costume “withholds” the masquerader, so too did the slave owners use everything within their power to suppress to the slaves. Slaves were separated from their kinsmen and divided into groups so that there were no common languages between them.
Their culture were stripped from them as they were not allowed to practice their religious beliefs, rituals or anything that connected them to who they were before they became the property of the slave owners. They were not even allowed to learn how to read and write. They were deliberate strategies to quell even the thought of rebellion and to keep them oppressed. Walcott, continues his comparison of the slave owners to a proud peacock with “a fan, flaunting its oval, jewelled eyes. ” By appealing to the reader’s sense of sight, Walcott is able to present an image that parallels the false pride of the slave owners.
Walcott’s uses alliteration – “fan flaunting” – to place further emphasis on how supercilious the slave owners believed themselves to be. They held their language, religion, education, customs and culture as something that should provoke the admiration of the slaves, as in their eyes those were the things that it made them superior. The persona’s expression of “what metaphors! ” shows that he is not afraid of using his acuity on himself. Here the persona is mocking himself for having used such interesting metaphors in the preceding lines. What coruscating, mincing fantasies” continues his wry tone. In referring to how the men are pretending to be superior to what they really are, one can almost hear Walcott’s terse vocals. Stanza two of the poem continues in the third person narrative mode, as the persona gives additional information based on his observations. The first line – “Hector Mannix, waterworks clerk, San Juan, has entered a lion” simply informs the reader of the costume portrayal of one of the mass men. There is no concrete evidence that determines whether it is the same lion costume mentioned in the previous stanza.
Next, Walcott uses a simile to compare Boysie’s gait while in his mass costume to that of Cleopatra’s – “Boysie, two golden mangoes bobbing for breastplates, barges / like Cleopatra down her river, making style. ” In those two lines, Walcott continues with his allusion to the slave masters attitude of superiority and self-importance. There is a subtle change in the fourth line of stanza two. While the undertone in the first half is reflective, the fourth line keeps us strictly in the present. The mass men call out to a child to join them in their celebration, then commented on the child not being able to dance in an offhanded manner.
Symbolically, there appears to be a disconnection between the fourth line and the rest of stanza two, as the subsequent lines resumes the tone of the first three lines. “But somewhere in that whirlwind’s radiance / a child, rigged like a bat, collapses, sobbing” tells of the inhumanity of older people to younger children both in the present situation of playing mass, and in the past where children were also forced into labour as slaves. The persona used alternating point of views, switching from third to first person and even second person narrative mode.
While both stanza one and two is written in third person narrative mode, stanza three shifts to first person mode. “But I am dancing, look, from an old gibbet / my bull-whipped body swings, a metronome! ” is a metaphor that evokes an incredibly perfervid image of slaves being hung. While Walcott’s allusions to slavery in the previous stanzas were somewhat muted, with this metaphor, there is no dubiety about what he is referring to. It is a prodigious metaphor that compares the persona’s dancing form to the motion made by the bodies of slaves who were left swaying on the gibbet after they had been hung.
The appeal to the readers’ visual and auditory senses are graphic. One can see the scourged body of a slave who had been hung, tied to a post, swaying, keeping time to some unheard rhythm that only his/her dead ears can hear. Walcott’s tone here is very sardonic. Walcott used a simile (“Like a fruit bat dropped in the silk-cotton’s shade / my mania, my mania is a terrible calm”) to compare his madness to a fruit bat descending into the shade of a silk cotton tree. “Like a fruit bat dropped in the silk-cotton’s shade” is an image that relates to slavery in the West Indies.
When Walcott says, “my mania, my mania is a terrible calm” he is being introspective. His repetition of “my mania” emphasizes the scope of his preoccupation with the past, while his use of the oxymoron “terrible calm” shows the depth of his rumination. The fourth and final stanza of the poem, like the previous stanza, utilizes a different narrative mode. In the fourth stanza, the persona through the use of “your” has employed the second-person narrative mode. In this stanza, the mass portrayals have finished. It is the morning after, when those who took part in the revelry seek penance.
“Upon your penitential morning, / ome skull must rub its memory with ashes” conjures up images of priests rubbing ashes on the foreheads of those individuals who come seeking atonement for the sins they committed while playing mass. Walcott’s tone here is flippant, as if to scoff at the idea that getting ashes on one’s forehead means that one is so easily forgiven for sins that have become ritualistic. Walcott is referring to himself when he said, “some mind must squat down howling in your dust, / some hand must crawl and recollect your rubbish, / someone must write your poems. ” It is exactly what he has been doing as an observer.
He is saying that the same way in which someone has to clean up after the mass, so too, does he have a job to do. His job is to observe, remember and document all that he has witnessed for future generations. The poem Mass Man, though complex, was quite elementary in its symbolism. Walcott’s use of mass as a facade to talk about the deeper affairs of slavery, while connecting both events, was skillfully done. His detachment from what was occurring around him, allowed him to see and interpret the mass portrayals in a way that someone who was personally invested in the celebrations would not.