Sir Derek Alton Walcott: A tribute on behalf of the Literary and Theatre Community
It is no small honour in life to be asked on some special occasion to speak on behalf of a friend; be it at a wedding, or at the courthouse, even at a funeral. These occurrences will and do happen and one moves with alacrity in such instances to infuse the mortal coil with power and purpose beyond the capacity of its humble, fragile, human sinews—living or dead; ending with the traditional pat on the back—good job man! Good job!
But when that mortal frame, which once belonged to a living giant, passes into immortality what can one say, what can one write that has not been written before, at least once? This is the predicament in which I find myself, standing before you being asked to weave my magic in five minutes, without a wand, or the dexterity of a J. K. Rowlins. What can I say now that he has not said, in an honest, simple voice, or has not already been said by others in glowing superlatives, which I am sure caused him on several occasions to look askance over his shoulders to ascertain whether or not, he was the one that was being addressed?
A great poet does not happen by a freak of nature, nothing is by chance. First comes that deep love, which breeds the frailty of humanism, manifesting as love of country and a deep rooted sense of belonging, becoming one with the earth wrapped in mankind’s enduring embrace. A phenomenal faith grounded in sincerity and truth. There is the loneliness and isolation that brings tears when moments grip the nerve and the urge to encapsulate the second and store it on the page for posterity reverberates on the mind . . .
Simply put, he loved his country, Saint Lucia, and its people beyond reproach, down to the last grain of dust, rising with a hot breeze in lent on our unpaved country roads; he loved the smell of the Creole bread rising with morning from a baker’s oven . . . Or etherized by the joy suffused in an old woman’s toothless grin: “Muyen sais gens St. Lucie, sais ici muyen fait . . . ” he sings in his local vernacular. Of him it could be truly said, as he said of Harry in ‘Another Life’ for every day he walked among us: His island forest, open and enclose him like a rare butterfly between its leaves.
His simple gift was to see beyond the horizon of mortality into the heart of ordinary things so that Paradise once lost could be regained. Now he walks with Chaucer and William of Avon, with Milton and Seamus and Joseph, in our hemisphere, with Martin and Eric; Césaire and Saint-John Perse. I can imagine him calling for a typewriter and fresh ribbons the minute he arrived.
His name now permanently carved in legend should not be honoured in sadness with the usual parody of tears, but in tribute to his memory. Imagine the driven gull finally coming to rest on his gommier log, waiting for an adze to shape it into the long canoe that will take him on a journey to wherever all poets go.
To Sigrid, Peter, Lizzie and Anna, and his nephew Nigel, it will be hard for you in the beginning, to balance between a companion, father, uncle and the larger than life symbol of all humanity. The pain of absence sears the mind, I know that well, but in time you will find consolation in the thought that he lives on in his pages of the monumental edifice he has built with his two blessed hands over the short span of seven decades that will endure “the whips of time” far into posterity beyond our own humble years. There will be many equals, similar to William Shakespeare in the English language, but Derek Walcott has no duplicate.
I extend my deepest condolences and that of the Literary and Theatre Community in Saint Lucia to Derek’s family and his large circle of friends from far and near – we will all miss him and the offbeat jokes and his infectious laughter that always made you laugh in spite of the joke.
I end abruptly, respecting the constraints of time, with a quote from his Omeros:
Because Rhyme remains the parentheses of palms shielding a candle’s tongue, it is the language’s desire to enclose the loved world in its arms.
Derek Walcott (left) and Peter Doig on stage at The Yard last December for the launch of their collaboration