America: Umpire or Empire?

In “Midsummer XXVII”, Derek Walcott describes the world of the West Indies as it is transformed by globalizing America. I think the poem is interesting in that, contrarily to the novels we have recently read, America is this pervasive influence that is not embodied into a character, but rather embodied in natural and non-natural processes. Indeed, the speaker of the poem starts off with

Certain things here are quietly American—

that chain-link fence dividing the absent roars

of the beach from the empty ball park, its holes

muttering the word umpire instead of empire (Walcott 486).

The first line seems a paradox in itself; the words “quietly” and “American” are not necessarily what one would use together, especially when it precedes “umpire” and “empire”. However, the silence or absence of sound seems like a recurring theme, as though the Americanization of the place is what quiets it. Indeed, what is American is the “chain link fence”, not “the absent roars/of the beach” (Walcott 486). The fence keeps the noises of the sea from reaching inland, yet the ball park, which can also be considered as American, is empty. This image seems to point out the flaws, the “holes” in the American imperialism; it removes and does not fill, distorts and does not improve. The word “empire” then distorts into “umpire”, yet the words both seem to talk about the United States. ‘Empire’ evokes sovereignty, control and domination, while ‘umpire’ is milder, softer, as it brings about ideas of impartial arbitration, authority and rules implementer. When looking at those two words, it appears that they both represent the United States in a way. The former has become the way the country behaves somewhat on a global level without claiming this title; the United States’ effect on global issues is very empire-like. Yet, the latter might be more of the mission it has giving itself without entirely sticking to it; this noble yet somewhat pretentious role of arbitrator is not the only thing the U.S. does by declaring wars and occupying countries (for example, “the Occupation in the last war” (Walcott 486)). It seems like both words touch at a certain aspect of American foreign politics and effects that are even truer today.

The poem furthers this concept of industrialization and non-natural processes through the lines “[b]ulldozers jerk/and gouge out a hill, but we all know that the dust/is industrial and must be suffered” (Walcotte 486). The speaker seems ironic by saying that the dust is “industrial and must be suffered”, not the industrial machines that cause it, as “[they] all know” (Walcott 486). As though the natives and people living in St. Thomas have been told this by the people responsible for all this “American rain” (Walcott 486). Yet, in the end, the speaker speaks the truth, lifting the veil upon their lack of innocence: “I fear what the migrant envies:/the starry pattern they make—the flag on the post office—/the quality of the dirt, the fealty changing under my foot” (Walcott 486).

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