M. Lock Swin­gen

The London Magazine - - NEWS -

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.

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