Derek Wal­cott and Peter Doig’s Dou­ble-Bar­reled Magic

The Star (St. Lucia) - - BOOK REVIEW - By Ann Landi

The poet Derek Wal­cott and the painter Peter Doig might seem un­likely col­lab­o­ra­tors for a volume of pic­tures and verse. Mr. Wal­cott, born in 1930, was a prodigy, pub­lish­ing his first po­ems at the age of 14 and steadily ac­cu­mu­lat­ing honors, in­clud­ing a No­bel Prize, through­out his long ca­reer. Mr. Doig, born in Ed­in­burgh in 1959 and partly raised in Canada, stud­ied paint­ing in Lon­don but was more of a late bloomer; he didn’t earn a mas­ter’s de­gree un­til he was 31. Two decades later, though, the sale of his paint­ing “White Ca­noe” for $10 mil­lion and a ret­ro­spec­tive at the Tate truly put him on the map as one of Bri­tain’s lead­ing artists.

Both men now make their home in the Caribbean—Mr. Wal­cott in his birth­place of St. Lu­cia; Mr. Doig in Trinidad— and their re­spec­tive artis­tic en­deav­ors have much in com­mon. Both make ac­ces­si­ble work, yet oc­ca­sion­ally in­ject an air of be­guil­ing mys­tery. (Con­sider, for in­stance, these lines from Mr. Wal­cott’s “The Oak’s Arms Com­mand”: “Aleg­ulp­ing dwarves / screamed blas­phe­mous curses while a sub­tle moon / guided the con­queror’s ves­sels to dim wharves.”)

Gen­er­ally, though, Mr. Wal­cott re­lies on old-fash­ioned plea­sures of po­etry: in­ter­nal and slant rhymes, cou­plets and even sto­ry­telling. Mr. Doig works with the painter’s time-hon­ored arse­nal of pig­ment, can­vas and brushes. His fig­u­ra­tive paint­ings make him a suc­ces­sor to artists like Ed­vard Munch and Henri Rousseau.

In “Morn­ing, Paramin” Mr. Doig and Mr. Wal­cott at­tain a kind of dou­ble-bar­reled magic as the poet re­sponds to 51 of the artist’s paint­ings. Both men are worldly trav­el­ers, and their vis­ual and lit­er­ary jour­ney here takes the reader from snowy north­ern land­scapes to steamy jun­gles and trop­i­cal beaches.

Some­times Mr. Wal­cott in­vents a nar­ra­tive to go with a par­tic­u­lar can­vas. In “The Hitch-Hiker,” a slab of scum­bled land­scape tra­versed by a red truck, the poet sees the monotony of the driver’s jour­ney as “the prov­inces slide past with their packed towns . . . / and soon there will be noth­ing but the light / of the red truck with who knows what freight / on which the humped hitch-hiker sleeps all night.”

Of a man walk­ing be­side a ceme­tery, car­ry­ing a pink para­sol un­der a pale blue sky in “Lapey­rouse Wall,” Mr. Wal­cott in­fers a soli­tary mourner: “The para­sol, I’d say, be­longs to his dead wife; / it floats him de­ter­mined, ru­mi­nant in the hot sun.” In one of Mr. Doig’s most dra­matic can­vases, “100 Years Ago (Car­rera),” a tableau of an im­pos­si­bly long or­ange ca­noe car­ry­ing a soli­tary fig­ure, the poet sees a “bearded, ema­ci­ated” man “tired of es­cap­ing his past.” Or he might be a “beat musician, say a bass player ma­rooned in his own fan­tasy on a / Caribbean va­ca­tion.”

In this and other po­ems Mr. Wal­cott makes us aware of the rich and of­ten bru­tal his­tory of the Caribbean. “Car­rera is one of the five is­lands in the Gulf of Paria, leg­endary voice in / ca­lypso folk­lore as a prison fa­mous for its stone-break­ing pun­ish­ment / and em­phatic melody,” he in­forms us in the

clos­ing lines. In oth­ers he eas­ily mixes cul­tures, cit­ing in one poem both Chekhov and “those scenes / in a cop movie where dur­ing the bank heist / a flash like this re­veals the ban­dit’s face.”

Like Mr. Doig’s paint­ings, in which neon or­anges and greens grab the viewer’s eye, the poet’s ob­ser­va­tions are of­ten tinged with acid. The wa­ter that sur­rounds “Pel­i­can Is­land” is a “basin of blood” where in­sec­ti­cides have wiped out the birds. In “Pel­i­can Man,” a poem and paint­ing about a poacher who makes off with his prey, drag­ging it along a “night beach,” Mr. Wal­cott warns, “We have done things to na­ture in our time. / The vic­tim may be miss­ing, but not the crime.”

In ad­di­tion to eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ter and vi­o­lence, there is also per­sonal tragedy and a keen aware­ness of mor­tal­ity in these po­ems. There are al­lu­sions to the re­cent death of a woman named Mar­garet (pos­si­bly the poet’s sec­ond wife?), and a con­scious­ness of his own end, of­ten ap­proached in a light-hearted way as he cel­e­brates the joy­ous na­ture of fu­ner­als in Caribbean so­ci­ety. “I should like to be a guest / at my own fu­neral,” he tells us. “Keep the beat for ev­ery­thing, the clap­ping, / that makes death seem the hap­pi­est thing to hap­pen.”

The “Paramin” of this book’s ti­tle, also a poem that ac­com­pa­nies Mr. Doig’s “Un­ti­tled (Jun­gle Paint­ing)” is a real place, a vil­lage lo­cated in Trinidad, and the poet men­tions a lush val­ley nearby where his daugh­ters live. It’s sig­nif­i­cant that it rhymes al­most with “par­adise,” and Mr. Wal­cott in­forms us, with­out nam­ing the loved one in ques­tion, that “when I join her it will be Paramin.” The ti­tle thus res­onates on sev­eral lev­els: as a greet­ing, or a time of day or a play on “mourn­ing.”

Mr. Wal­cott’s love and knowl­edge of art shine through, and per­haps his early train­ing as a painter gave him a par­tic­u­larly sharp eye. He is fond of cit­ing other painters that come to mind when he’s study­ing Mr. Doig’s works: Dau­mier, Cézanne, Philip Gus­ton, De Chirico, Pi­casso, even Chris Ofili. Which makes it all the more puz­zling that he would mis­take the old woman in An­drew Wyeth’s fa­mous paint­ing “Christina’s World” for a girl, as he does in his poem “Girl in White with Trees.” Most ob­servers on first en­counter with the Wyeth can­vas do in­deed be­lieve the soli­tary fig­ure could be a crip­pled girl, but closer ob­ser­va­tion re­veals the scrawny arms of an el­derly farm woman.

That small com­plaint aside, this is a volume that of­fers plea­sures on so many lev­els, not the least of which is the poet’s deft use of metaphor. In a poem de­scrib­ing the ex­otic her­itage and ap­pear­ance of one of Mr. Doig’s por­traits, he writes of “beards like fork­ing flames” and a woman with “wet eyes like black olives.” It’s an in­ter­pre­ta­tion of a gor­geous paint­ing that, like all great read­ing ex­pe­ri­ences, sub­tly changes the way you see.

PHOTO: FAR­RAR, STRAUS & GIROUX

‘Lapey­rouse Wall’ (2004) by Peter Doig shows a street by a ceme­tery in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

In “Morn­ing, Paramin,” a renowned painter and a No­bel-win­ning poet med­i­tate on the dif­fi­cult beauty of the Caribbean.

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