M. Lock Swingen
Remembering Derek Walcott
When I realised that I was going to teach English for a year in Fort-de-France, Martinique, I brought with me three books to keep me company in a strange and foreign land. Two of the books were books from my early childhood, two writers from the United States, like me, but the other book stashed in my suitcase between my work clothes and swim trunks was the Selected Poems of Derek Walcott. I grew up intrigued by poetry – the way in which the words seem held together by pain and mirrors – and reading Walcott left an indelible mark on my young imagination when I discovered his poetry at the age of sixteen. Ten years later, on the verge of leaving for Martinique, I knew that I could not experience the Caribbean in any real way without reading his poems again.
Upon stepping foot in Fort-de-France I struggled to adjust to the tropical heat and humidity of the island. On my first day of work I showed up to school drenched in back and armpit sweat and retreated to the bathroom to dab my forehead with Kleenex. After introducing myself to my students, it took a few minutes of laughter and snickers for me to realise that bits of tissue were stuck to my forehead. In Martinique school begins in the rainy season, but that year it did not rain. During those first few months of sweat and exhaustion the locals would tell me that the white glare of the sun began to blister even them. After work, I kept cool by taking shelter in the shade of the single rum shop that also housed an air conditioning unit, propped and purring in the front window that looked out onto the sea, and there I would read Walcott’s poetry. Walcott’s poems at once comforted me and made me feel elated, as if I could see into the heart of the landscape that surrounded me. For Walcott, the Caribbean and its landscape seemed almost to be made up of language, as if the sheer verbal torque of Walcott’s poetry proved more real than reality itself:
… I seek, As climate seeks its style, to write Verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight, Cold as the curled wave, ordinary As a tumbler of island water; Yet, like a diarist, thereafter I savour their salt-haunted rooms.
The power of Walcott’s poetry lies in the extraordinary freedom of his images, which seek to stack and multiply metaphors in order to achieve a kind of magical thinking or synesthesia. Anything in Walcott’s world can be linked to anything else, but Walcott especially delights in metaphor and figurative language that translates reality from one real into its opposite – the concrete into the abstract, the visual into the tactile or the auditory:
I met History once, but he ain’t recognise me, a parchment Creole, with warts like an old sea-bottle, crawling like a crab through the holes of shadow cast by the net of a grille balcony; cream linen, cream hat.
The constant cross-pollination of metaphors never lapses into incoherence – or crosses the border into surrealism – because the central aim of Walcott’s poetry is never disruption but a sort of radical integration. For example, while sitting in that tiny rum shop I read again my favourite collection of Walcott’s poetry, The Fortunate Traveller, where he writes, ‘I think of Europe as a gutter of autumn leaves / choked like the thoughts in an old woman’s throat.’ Here, we have a triple metaphor, where a continent transforms into a gutter, and the leaves become thoughts, and the thoughts clog the throat. And yet the emotional tenor of the image remains clear. We sense the burden of the European past, its strangling weight, and the poet’s desire to free himself of it. For Walcott, the true masters were to be found in the Caribbean landscape around him. In Another Life, Walcott’s autobiography in verse, he writes:
Verandahs, where the pages of the sea are a book left open by an absent master in the middle of another life – I begin here again, begin until this ocean’s a shut book, and like a bulb the white moon’s filaments wane.
After reading in that tiny rum shop next to the air conditioner, or whenever I walked down to the cool harbour for an early morning swim, the sea would always be indelibly marked by the magical thinking of Walcott’s poetry.
As the holidays approached I booked a flight out of St. Lucia, which proved cheaper than flying out of the Martinique Aimé Césaire International Airport, due to its predilection for flights and itineraries directed toward mainland France and the European continent. Despite having lived in Martinique for four months now, I still hadn’t visited another island. I packed my bags. As I waited in the downtown port of Fort-de-France to board the ferry for St. Lucia there was a predawn chill in the morning wind. It was a couple days before Christmas Eve, and in the boarding station St. Lucians chatted with holiday cheer as they waited for the return passage home. They had traveled across the blue channel to Martinique, one of the neighbouring French islands, to buy Christmas presents to bring home to their loved ones and families. Martinique has an Antillean reputation for sophistication, and St. Lucians carried with them bags full of chocolates in pink boxes, transparent cases of artisanal pastries, and wine bottles with elaborate crests on their labels. I, too, carried with me gifts of French wine to bring home. The boarding station where I chatted with the St. Lucians overlooked the bay that led to the blue channel that divided the two islands.
It was late at night when I reached my bed & breakfast. Despite the twilight hour, my host Martha was lively and almost electric when she opened the front door. She laughed and sometimes clapped as she gave me a tour of her small mustard gabled house in the quiet outskirts of the capital. Martha
had just published a children’s novel, she told me, which she displayed on the end table by the couch in the living room where we talked. I asked her if she had ever read Derek Walcott, who was also from St. Lucia. She was friends, she laughed, with Mr. Walcott’s partner Sigrid Nama. Martha got up from the sofa, headed for her old rotary dial phone, and called up Sigrid. Unable to comprehend what was exactly happening, I remained seated on the sofa and sipped the ti’punch she had served me. After a few seconds Martha’s eyes widened. She mouthed that Walcott himself was on the other end of the line. Martha explained to Mr. Walcott that a young man wished to speak with him. She passed the phone to me. Dumbfounded, my opening remarks sounded as cliché as any star-struck tourist accosting a Hollywood A-lister in the streets of L.A. ‘Derek Walcott, is that really you?’ I asked. The conversation went on exactly like that.
The next day Martha and I spent the entire morning and early afternoon crafting an immaculately-phrased email that inquired if I could meet Mr. Walcott in person. I write book reviews for a small literary magazine, published out of the United States, and in the email Martha and I explained – or maybe connived – that the meeting would serve as an opportunity to interview him for the magazine. Martha was adamant that Mr. Walcott be addressed as ‘Honourable Sir Walcott’ in the email, since he had recently been awarded the title of Knight Commander of the Order of St. Lucia. We sweated out another draft and added the epaulets to his name. Just the day before, while on the ferry crossing the eighty kilometres of waterway that separated Martinique from St. Lucia, it never would have occurred to me to call up Walcott, despite the basic fact that his phone number is listed in the St. Lucian phone registry, and even if the idea had occurred to me, I never would have done it. It’s not in my nature. And yet Martha kept persisting that I meet him. We sent off the email and spent the night at the Caribbean cinema and watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens. How could it be, I wondered in the cool darkness of the cinema, that I might meet a childhood hero? Outside of the cinema now, purple light still out, Martha checked her email on her phone. Walcott had sent a reply. He told me to swing by in two weeks after New Year’s Eve.
Back in the United States, while white blizzards raged across the East Coast that year, I researched and prepared for the interview with a sort of ferocious intensity, predicated less upon diligence or single-mindedness and more on something resembling blind animal terror. After all, how to prepare for an interview with a writer of this calibre? Sir Honourable Derek Walcott, a Nobel Laureate, is indisputably one of the lions of world literature. In the first decades of his career, a large part of Walcott’s ambition aimed to bring his native St. Lucia into the world of literature for the very first time. Growing up on a tiny island on the outskirts of the British Empire, Walcott’s childhood education meant that he studied the English and European literary classics. And yet the glorious oak tree he encountered in the poetry of Keats did not correspond to the breadfruit tree he saw outside his own bedroom window. Many of his poems aim to show that the Caribbean – its people, landscape, history – belongs in English poetry no less than England itself. ‘Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?’ Walcott imagines being asked in The Sea Is History, and he replies by pointing to the sea:
These groined caves with barnacles pitted like stone are our cathedrals.
The sea caves of the Caribbean, Walcott claims, rival the nave and whirling spires of Notre-Dame. From this private sensibility evolves an oeuvre – eighteen poetry collections, nine volumes of drama, and a book of essays – of an imagination unparalleled in the magical gift of rendering the Caribbean into the permanence of poetry.
When I met Derek Walcott after New Year’s Eve he was already very old. For some reason, I had pictured him as I saw him in photographs from the 1980s, as if time stops for lions. But time does not stop, even for Walcott. I helped Derek position his wheelchair around a table under the verandah outside his home that looked out onto the sea. Just like in Martinique, I dressed myself in a button-down dress shirt with a gold pin dot tie and slacks. Derek wore shorts and a loosely-fitted t-shirt with a pen sheathed
in the breast pocket. Back in the United States, I had prepared around two dozen high-minded questions – the sort of questions one would think to ask a man of this stature – that focused on subjects like post-colonial thought, Caribbean politics, the hottest trends in academic literary theory, or the ultimate signification of his work. To kick off the interview, I asked if I could read aloud a poem of his, perhaps one of his more widely anthologised pieces like Ruins of a Great House. ‘I would hate that,’ he replied. Dumbfounded, I asked why. ‘I don’t know,’ he laughed. ‘What’s the point of all this?’ I didn’t know how to respond. The tape recorder recording silence. Feeling that I had to drop all pretences, I confessed that I had found his poetry early on in life and that his work had left an indelible mark on me. We sat outside at the table under the verandah in the dying light and began to talk about Hart Crane, Emily Dickinson, and Paul Cézanne. Walcott explained how Cézanne, renouncing the pretence of recreating reality, selected instead one element from reality – light – to interpret all of nature. I showed him a poem I had written about skiing in Montana. After I had read the poem aloud, he asked me from where I had stolen the phrase ‘blue snow.’ When I told him I hadn’t found the phrase anywhere, he told me to come back tomorrow morning, and we would talk some more.
The next day, and in fact over the next several months, we met and discussed how to write better, how to see more clearly, and how to depict landscape in language the way Cézanne painted landscape on canvas. Eventually, Derek was kind enough to introduce me to his friends and integrate me into his literary circle. Under the verandah outside his house we circled around Derek, like moons orbiting a planet. Every one of us had somehow in our own way been deeply marked by Walcott. For me, it felt as if I was sixteen again reading and rereading the biographies of writers and artists whose lives seemed inextricably linked with each other. For whatever reason, Derek allowed me into his world of like-minded people whose very blood coursed with the fresh morning wind of literature. Although Derek never ceased to treat his friends with un-bounding generosity and spirit, he was also a tough and merciless teacher. What mattered most to Derek always seemed to be the hard work required in order to succeed at the difficult craft
of poetry, which he called ‘perfection’s sweat.’ In White Egrets, Walcott writes:
If this man is right then there’s nothing else to do but abandon poetry like a woman because you love it and would not see her hurt, least of all by me.
When I returned to Martinique after my meetings with Derek, my writing would always change. There was always a way to get better. There was always a way to see how a white heron was the same colour as clouds or waterfalls. There was always a way to see better how the early morning light lengthened the shadows of trees and noon took them away.
The last time I saw Derek it was only a few months before he passed away. It had been only a little over a year since we first met. He was much weaker and his health had deteriorated since I last saw him. With Sigrid, I stood beside Derek’s bed where he lay and greeted him. Sigrid and I discussed the upcoming events for Nobel Laureate Festival, a weeklong celebration of St. Lucia’s two Nobel Laureates, scheduled to take place over the next several days. Suddenly, Derek perked up and asked me: ‘How’s the work?’ Taken aback, I told him that I had spent the past few months preparing some new poems for him. ‘Do you have them here with you?’ he asked. Although I didn’t expect to show the poems to Derek due to his frail health, I brought them with me because I knew that the the price of admission to Derek’s world charged poems and hard work: perfection’s sweat. I pulled up a chair next to the bed where he lay, and I handed over the poems and a pen. It took him a few minutes to position the pen in his hand and set the pages of the poems against his upraised thighs. As he began to mark up and approve certain aspects of my poem while tearing other parts to shreds, I watched Derek breathe in that fresh morning wind again. In the borrowed hospital bed next to the oxygen tank in his bedroom we worked for a long time. The man never stopped working. His work lives on.