by HILTON ALS
Derek Walcott is writing a poetry of the Caribbean.
Issue of 2004-02-09
We had just finished lunch. Derek Walcott got up from his canvas chair and stretched. He said to his longtime companion, ´Sigrid, I am going for a swim.´ We were on a beach in Castries, the capital of the island of St. Lucia, in the Lesser Antilles, where Walcott was born, in 1930, and where he still lives. It was Bastille Day, a French holiday celebrated in St. Lucia, too. Two boys on horseback, very thin and very black and shoeless, rode along the stretch of ground behind us. Their necks swivelled as they picked up speed, urging their horses to gallop, looking for more and more open space to explore.
Sigrid said, ´Oh, all right, Dodo. I´ll join you soon.´
Walcott walked away. He is bantam weight, with light-blue-gray eyes and honey-colored skin. A black frigate bird´what patois-speaking St. Lucians call a scisour de la mer´cut through the turquoise sky. Sigrid and I looked on as Walcott made his way down to the Caribbean Sea, getting smaller and smaller against the big, watching water.
As Walcott disappeared beneath the surface, Sigrid said, ´You know, when he won the Nobel´´for literature, in 1992´´I was worried about our relationship. There were many women around. Speaking generally, West Indian men like to hop from flower to flower.´ Sigrid laughed. She is sixty years old, German-born, with lemon-colored hair and a burnished face. They met in Pittsburgh, where Sigrid ran an art gallery, in 1986, when Walcott gave a reading at the Carnegie Museum. She offered him a ride home from the reading, and later he invited her to Cleveland to see one of his plays. They have been together since. ´I was married once before,´ she said. ´One hopes for . . . an upgrade. And, of course, Derek has been married before. When we got together, and it became clear we would stay together, Derek said, ´I certainly hope this is it.´´
´Sigrid! Look!´ Squatting, half out of the water, Walcott hoisted a glistening black boy on his shoulders. The boy´s wide, white grin was as unbridled as Walcott´s joyful shout.
´Oh, look at Dodo!´ Sigrid said. ´You know, he paid for that boy to have swimming lessons once he saw that the boy couldn´t swim well but wanted to learn. Derek will do that, and never speak of it. So generous.´
Walcott, the most ardent chronicler of the island´s history and landscape and people, sometimes acts as a patron, a kind of John the Baptist of St. Lucia. (´I would be a preacher, / I would write great hymns,´ he wrote in the 1973 autobiographical book-length poem ´Another Life.´) He has lived in the West Indies for most of his creative life, writing, painting, and teaching, not only in St. Lucia but in Jamaica, St. Thomas, Barbados, Grenada, and Trinidad. In nine volumes of poetry, and in numerous essays, speeches, and plays, he has documented life in a place most Americans think of in terms of sunblock and steel drums, and their own fantasies about slimming walks along the beach, limbo lessons, and rum drinks dressed with flowers. Walcott´s work revels in the history, the mores, and the differences of a people generally misunderstood, if they are thought about at all.
In formal, somewhat extravagant verse, Walcott captures the island´s beauty: ´the rounded / Breasts of the milky bay, palms, flocks, the green and dead / Leaves, the sun´s brass coin on my cheek, /. . . This island is heaven.´ His vision can be unromantic, too, and the impulse to idealize is checked by a sharp irony. ´Subject of poetasters, the Paradisal Isles!´ he once remarked in a review of an anthology of West Indian writing. His St. Lucia´with its dusty frangipani trees, its mixed-race people speaking several languages, and its junked British- and American-made jeeps´is a place of both poverty and abundance. In ´Sainte Lucie,´ a poem from the 1976 collection ´Sea Grapes,´ Walcott writes:
Laborie, Choiseul, Vieuxfort, Dennery,
from these sun-bleached villages
where the church bell caves in the sides
of one grey-scurfed shack that is shuttered
with warped boards, with rust,
with crabs crawling under the house-shadow
where the children played house;
a net rotting among cans, the sea-net
of sunlight trolling the shallows
catching nothing all afternoon.
Working in an English verse tradition and writing about everyday life in the Caribbean, Walcott knows himself to be an anomaly. ´I have to live, socially, in an almost unfinished society,´ he told me once. ´Among the almost great, among the almost true, among the almost honest. That allows me to describe the anguish.´ His goal, he said, is to ´finish´ his incomplete culture.
We were meant to have lunch the next day. Sigrid picked me up in a white jeep at my hotel in Castries, in the northwest part of the island. She wanted to give me a tour of Castries and the coast, stopping off in a restaurant in the fishing village of SoufriÃ¨re. ´SoufriÃ¨re is down the coast, all the way west,´ she said. ´We could have taken a boat around the island, but then you would not have seen as much of St. Lucia. Today you´ll see´well, you´ll see so much! When we were on the beach yesterday, did you happen to notice Martinique? On a clear day´´
´On a clear day you can see Martinique,´ Walcott said. He was sitting in the back seat and laughed dryly when he interrupted Sigrid´s good-natured spiel. He sounded impatient with her tendency to treat the landscape like a sitting room: here are our needlepoint pillows, here is our mountain.
´Sigrid loves saying that to everyone who comes down here,´ he said. ´Darling,´ he said, leaning forward a bit in his seat and speaking over her shoulder. ´You must curb your natural ebullience today. It´s a long drive.´ His sharp tone was a reminder that the trip to SoufriÃ¨re was disrupting his work routine. He usually rises shortly after dawn and writes and paints for three or four hours.
We passed the harbor in Castries. A ship carrying passengers from St. Lucia´s neighbors in the Windward Islands´St. Vincent, the Grenadines, Grenada´was about to dock. A shed at the near end of the dock cast a shadow in the early-morning sunshine. It made the black people standing around the dock appear blacker.
´Sigrid, I want to go to that bread shop on the way. I´ve been dreaming of it,´ Walcott said.
´Oh, Dodo! Bread! You can´t! Our diet!´
´That bread,´ Walcott said, musing. ´They fry it up with cod.´
´Or with peppers and a kind of cherry.´ Sigrid sighed. The jeep bumped and surged ahead over the narrow cobblestone streets of downtown Castries. From the front and side windows, shoppers, schoolchildren, and a number of stray dogs and idlers could be seen converging at bus stops and in front of the yellow, red, and blue buildings on Brazil Street. The buildings had been erected in the nineteenth century, and done up in the old colonial style. They had managed to survive´as little of the original architecture downtown had´the great fires of 1927 and 1948.
St. Lucia, fourteen miles across and twenty-seven miles long, has always been building and rebuilding itself. The hilly, volcanic island was first populated by the Arawak Indians, who were conquered and, according to rumor, ritually eaten by the Carib Indians. In 1650, the French arrived, and, in 1664, the British. For the next hundred and fifty years, the two powers struggled for possession of the money-making colony (the French had established sugarcane plantations and imported slaves from West Africa to cultivate them). The island changed hands fourteen times, until the British claimed it decisively, in 1814. St. Lucia gained its full independence from Britain in 1979, while still remaining part of the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, colonialism persists, in the form of a strong class system based, in part, on race. Brown is better than black, and almost white is, if not better than brown, a bit more interesting, raffinÃ©. The lighter one´s skin, the closer one´s ties to Britain, Europe, ´real´ civilization. Language is another legacy of colonial rule. Most people on the island speak a French patois; English is for the well-educated Ã©lite.
We parked in the shadow of the gloomy Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception´Catholicism is an artifact of French rule´and Sigrid and I walked across the street to Derek Walcott Square, renamed in 1993. The square is dominated by an enormous saman tree. The sun burned hard on the handsome bronze head that had been rendered in Walcott´s likeness, with a wide mouth and nose. There was another sculpture in the square´a bust of St. Lucia´s 1979 Nobel Prize winner, the economist Sir W. Arthur Lewis´but Walcott was the centerpiece. Several passersby, spotting Walcott in the car´he had refused to get out´approached him diffidently but familiarly. He was their poet, their voice, their pride. ´Provincialism loves the pseudo-epic,´ he has written, somewhat wryly. Still, it is not easy to find a shop on the island that carries his books.
Sigrid handed me her camera. ´Take a picture of me with Dodo!´ she said, standing next to the bust of Walcott. She did not seem to notice the people who paused to stare at her. In St. Lucia, whiteness, it seems, is still an event, a form of tourism for the native. We walked away from the poet´s bust, and Sigrid tipped the young man who kept up the square.
As we drove down the smooth West Coast Highway toward SoufriÃ¨re, Walcott said, ´When I was a boy, going to SoufriÃ¨re was like going to the country. I was a city boy; Castries was the city.´ He chuckled. ´It´s amazing how they´ve built this road up. You know, it used to take days to get to SoufriÃ¨re´´
´Probably not days,´ Sigrid said firmly, directing the jeep up through the winding roads. In the fifteen years that they have been together, Sigrid has become responsible for much of Walcott´s business. Walcott is in constant demand as a reader and lecturer. Every summer, he teaches a master class in poetry at the University of Milan, and every fall he teaches poetry and playwriting at Boston University. Sigrid keeps the itinerary and makes the hotel reservations. She also manages their homes´they have an apartment in New York in addition to their house in St. Lucia´while pursuing an interest in photography. She has taken many photographs of Walcott over the years. She has photographs of Walcott with the writers that matter to him most, such as his close friends Seamus Heaney, Arthur Miller, and the late Joseph Brodsky. There are photographs, too, of Walcott with his children: Peter, a forty-one-year-old painter, who lives in St. Lucia, from Walcott´s first marriage, to Faye Moyston; Elizabeth and Anna, who live in Trinidad, from his second marriage, to Margaret Maillard. (There was a third marriage, to Norline Metivier, which ended in 1993, after a separation of several years.)
We got farther away from the city, and the vegetation grew thicker. The air grew thicker, too. Rain fell abundantly and then stopped suddenly. Steam rose from the rusted corrugated tin roofs that were sheltering groups of loitering teen-agers. All around there was an overwhelming green. Walcott said that the writer and editor Leon Wieseltier had once visited him in St. Lucia. ´Looking around at all this´´the palm trees, the banana plantations, the mounds of red-brown earth, the Caribbean Sea at the foot of the mountains´´he said, ´Oh, I see, you´re a minimalist!´´ Walcott laughed. He has a smoker´s laugh, abrupt and phlegmy, though he gave up cigarettes, and alcohol, more than a decade ago.
After what seemed like many hours, we passed the tiny town of Anse la Raye and reached the shack where Walcott wanted to stop. The ride had been awkward, full of long silences. When Walcott spoke, he was brusque but never exactly rude: he has a British penchant for distancing through politeness, and for teasing as a means of expressing hurt, anger, and resentment. There is something unforgiving in his person that is reflected in the poems. Heaney writes that what he loves about Walcott´s poems is ´the writerly fearlessness . . . the readiness to lift the baton and tune the big orchestra´and there´s always just that hint of a possibility that if things get out of hand the baton could turn into a nightstick.´ When I asked Walcott about the use of free verse in poetry, he was disdainful. ´What´s free about it?´ he said. ´As if the self is enough to make a poem. What makes a poem is the discipline inherent in making a poem. Trying to fit feelings in the requisite number of syllables and lines, disciplining one´s feelings.´ In an earlier conversation, he had told me, ´The concept of song has gone out of contemporary poetry for the time being, and has been out of contemporary poetry for a long while. And all those attributes, like rhyme, complexity, or rigidity of meter, have gone. If music goes out of language, then you are in bad trouble.´
As we stepped out of the air-conditioned jeep and onto the black, rain-slicked road, the humidity hit us like something solid. The shack, dark and low-ceilinged, had two rooms, one with a big cauldron where cassava bread was prepared. After Sigrid ordered for us, I followed Walcott into the second room, which was partially open to a tremendous, unexpected drop: we were on the edge of a deep canyon, jagged green mountain peaks all around. When our food arrived, we ate in silence. Birds screeched. I could hear the insect world feeding on itself.
We finished, and I walked out of the shed and stood facing the road. Just then, I saw three men, shirtless, walking up the road carrying machetes´workers, probably, on one of the many banana plantations we had passed on the way out. One of the men was the color of a light rum, with dirty-blond dreadlocks and golden eyes. He was like an apparition from the great Walcott poem ´The Schooner Flight,´ from 1979, which is narrated by the seafaring Shabine:
I had no nation now but the imagination.
After the white man, the niggers didn´t want me
when the power swing to their side.
The first chain my hands and apologize, ´History´;
the next said I wasn´t black enough for their pride. . . .
I met History once, but he ain´t recognize 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.
I confront him and shout, ´Sir is Shabine!
They say I´se your grandson. You remember Grandma,
your black cook, at all?´ The bitch hawk and spat.
A spit like that worth any number of words.
But that´s all them bastards have left us: words.
Like Shabine´s, Walcott´s blood is mixed. As Bruce King recounts in his 2000 biography ´Derek Walcott: A Caribbean Life,´ Walcott´s paternal grandfather, Charles, was a white Englishman whose family immigrated to Barbados. Charles went to St. Lucia in the late eighteen-hundreds to acquire a plantation near Choiseul, on the southwest coast of the island. There he met Christiana Wardrope, a brown woman with whom he had five children; one of them was Warwick, Derek´s father. Although Charles eventually married Christiana, he stayed on the plantation while she lived in Castries with their children.
As a young man, Warwick worked as a copyist at the Education Office. (Subsequently, he worked for St. Lucia´s Attorney General and Acting Chief Justice.) At night and on weekends, Warwick painted, read Shakespeare and Dickens, and gathered around him like-minded friends, who put on amateur theatricals. One of the members of this group, which Warwick christened the Star Literary Club, was Alix Maarlin, the daughter of Johannes van Romondt, a white estate owner on St. Maarten, and Caroline Maarlin, a brown woman. Alix had moved to St. Lucia as a young girl, apparently to finish her schooling. Her guardian, a Dutch trader, was part of a small clan who helped establish the Methodist presence on St. Lucia. Alix, too, practiced Methodism, which was practically a cult on the Catholic-dominated island.
So these orphans of miscegenation met and married and created a small society of their own, in a two-story house with Gothic gables on the east side of Castries, which is now occupied by a printer. Their first child, Pamela, was born on August 14, 1928; sixteen months later, Derek and Roderick, twins, were born. Warwick Walcott died of an ear infection at the age of thirty-four, when the twins were a year old.
´I don´t remember the death or anything like that, but I always felt his presence because of the paintings that he did,´ Walcott recalled in an interview with The Paris Review in 1985. ´I remember once coming across a backcloth of a very ordinary kind of moonlight scene that he had painted for some number that was going to be done by a group of people who did concerts and recitations and stuff like that. So that was always there. Now, that didn´t make me a morose, morbid child. Rather, in a sense, it gave me a kind of impetus and a strong sense of continuity. I felt that what had been cut off in him somehow was an extension that I was continuing.´
At St. Mary´s College, a high school in Castries, Walcott studied Latin, reading the classical historians. He read Shakespeare and the major English poets, and began writing poems of his own. Alix, who never remarried, taught at the Methodist school and took in ´fine´ sewing to supplement her income. From her meagre earnings, she gave Walcott the money he needed to privately publish his ´25 Poems,´ in a small edition in St. Lucia, when he was eighteen.
Early on, Walcott claimed St. Lucia as his subject. In a poem from 1948, he wrote of ´The uncouth features of this, my prone island´ and considered the lot of a people ´Found only / In tourist booklets, behind ardent binoculars; / Found in the blue reflection of eyes / That have known cities and think us happy.´ He was attentive to form, and deliberate in his self-restraint: ´My life . . . must not be made public / Until I have learnt to suffer / In accurate iambics.´ Influenced by the formal dexterity of Thomas Hardy and the narrative sweep of George Meredith´and impressed by the compression of Hemingway´s short stories´Walcott forged a style that was taut yet stately, commanding and yet intimate in its local detail. He perverted the tenets of his colonial education, replacing Europe with the Caribbean as the center of the world.
As an adolescent, Walcott took an informal seminar at the home of Harold Simmons, a painter who had been a friend of his father´s. Walcott relished the instruction, and the conversation he found there. He became close to the muralist Dunston St. Omer, who studied with Simmons as well. In ´Another Life,´ he wrote of their joint ambition:
But drunkenly, or secretly, we swore,
disciples of that astigmatic saint,
that we would never leave the island
until we had put down, in paint, in words,
as palmists learn the network of a hand,
all of its sunken, leaf-choked ravines,
every neglected, self-pitying inlet
muttering in brackish dialect, the ropes of mangroves
from which old soldier crabs slipped
surrendering to slush,
each ochre track seeking some hilltop and
losing itself in an unfinished phrase.
Walcott, who paints portraits of his friends and storyboards for his plays, often supplies the cover art for his books: a cracked coconut for ´The Collected Poems,´ a dark-leaved sea-almond tree for ´Midsummer,´ mountains, sky, and trees for ´The Bounty.´ (´Tiepolo´s Hound,´ his book-length narrative poem about Camille Pissarro, who was born on St. Thomas, was published with twenty-six of Walcott´s watercolors and oils.) His ideas about painting are as strong as his ideas about poetry. He has no time for Abstract Expressionism, let alone Pop art. When I asked him about his art, he said, ´Representing the thing you see with fidelity, isn´t that the lesson?´
Despite Walcott´s apparent brilliance, he did not go abroad to school. ´I didn´t pass the scholarship exam for Oxford, because of poor mathematics,´ he said. ´In any case, I was so happy to be at home, where one could paint year-round, outdoors.´ He worked as an assistant master at his alma mater, St. Mary´s College, teaching Roman and British history, and worked on his writing.
At nineteen, he and Roderick´who went on to become a director and a playwright himself´staged the first play in ´The Haitian Trilogy,´ a drama about the Haitian revolution, which Walcott would work on for the next forty years. Alix sewed the costumes, and the emerging novelist George Lamming narrated. ´I had enormous energy then,´ Walcott said. With his friend Maurice Mason, he co-founded, in 1950, the St. Lucia Arts Guild, whose aim was to promote the arts indigenous to St. Lucians in St. Lucia. The same year, he received a scholarship to attend the University College of West Indies, in Mona, Jamaica. He graduated in 1954, with a bachelor-of-arts degree. Soon he married Faye and had Peter. The family lived in Jamaica for several more years, and then, after the dissolution of the marriage, Walcott moved to Trinidad.
In Trinidad, his interest in theatre intensified. He founded the Little Carib Theatre Workshop (later the Trinidad Theatre Workshop), and wrote numerous plays. In 1971, Walcott´s ´Dream on Monkey Mountain´ won an Obie for Most Distinguished Foreign Play Off-Broadway, but generally the reviews of his plays have been mixed. ´I´ve had an astonishing number of failures in the theatre,´ he told me. ´I have to have the arrogance that I perhaps have to believe that the outgrowth of verse´theatre´matters.´ (His most public failure was the 1998 Broadway musical ´The Capeman,´ which folded after eight weeks, and is thought to have lost eleven million dollars. Walcott wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics with Paul Simon.)
In his 1975 essay ´On Choosing Port of Spain,´ Walcott spoke of being ´broken´ and ´adrift´ when he arrived in Trinidad, but he was clearly inspired by the island´s heterogeneity. He embraced the cosmopolitan aura of Port of Spain and its ´beautiful and various´ population, delighting in the mixture of ´Portuguese, Jew, Chinese, and Levantine.´
V. S. Naipaul, another winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, once said dismissively that the artists on his native Trinidad were nothing more than ´bongo islanders,´ but Walcott found the artistic life quite nurturing and rich. Besides writing poetry and plays, directing, and painting, he wrote book, theatre, and film reviews, and profiles for the Trinidad Guardian. He told me that he had wanted to improve the quality of the writing in the paper, to make it as important as any of the British literary newspapers. All along, Walcott had been selling poems to the BBC´s ´Caribbean Voice´ program. ´On the BBC, they paid you a guinea a minute, so I wrote a long series of sonnets,´ he told me, laughing. He yearned for a larger audience and wanted to publish overseas, but didn´t want to live abroad like some of his contemporaries, among them George Lamming and the novelist Samuel Selvon. In an interview with the West Indian novelist Caryl Phillips, in 1992, Walcott recalled seeing a book by a Caribbean writer for the first time:
It was mildly astonishing holding [it] and thinking, ´My God, this is a book.´ It´s common now to have books published by people all over the Commonwealth, but then Commonwealth writing was just coming out. The other thing that diffused any strong pull towards London was that I wanted to paint. I wanted to paint the West Indian landscape. I couldn´t do that abroad. Other things got strengthened later, the fact that I was writing about a place that had never been written about before, to any extent. Sharing in the creation of something is very exhilarating.
In 1961, Alan Ross, the editor of London Magazine, was passing through Trinidad and happened to read some of Walcott´s poems. He took them back to London, where they were published the following year by Jonathan Cape, under the title ´In a Green Night.´ Robert Lowell read the book, and, as Elizabeth Hardwick, his wife at the time, told me, ´Cal loved the poems´their fidelity to a landscape not our own.´ In 1962, on their way to Brazil to visit Elizabeth Bishop, the Lowells stopped to see Walcott in Trinidad. ´We were meant to stay one week, and stayed two,´ Hardwick recalled.
In 1964, on Lowell´s recommendation, Walcott´s ´Selected Poems´ was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which has been his American publisher ever since. He was thirty-four years old. In the ´Selected Poems,´ Walcott began to work toward an epic vision that would merge the African and European halves of his identity. In ´Origins,´ he summoned Hector, Achilles, Aeneas, and Ulysses, and figured himself as baby Moses in Egypt. He places himself ´Between the Greek and African pantheon, / Lost animist´ and his sibyl ´gibbers with the cries / Of the Guinean odyssey.´
Walcott´s poems demanded that the Continent take notice of its colonial legacy. In a sonnet sequence called ´Tales of the Islands,´ his diction swerves between dialect´´Poopa, da´ was a fÃªte! I mean it had / Free rum free whisky and some fellars beating / Pan from one of them band in Trinidad´´and the Queen´s English: ´The marl white road, the DorÃ©e rushing cool / Through gorges of green cedars, like the sound / Of infant voices from the Mission School.´ Writing about ´Selected Poems´ in the New York Review of Books, Robert Mazzocco praised Walcott´s ´orotund, mellifluously spun lines.´ He went on, ´His world is almost a continual surge of scenic delights and/or degradations, all of which he uses for dramatic effect, sometimes in the symbolist mode, sometimes as a sort of pictorial choreography, and sometimes as a violently-charged reverie, or as a declamation. . . . Not many attempt things like this any more, not many Walcott´s age anyway.´ Robert Graves described Walcott´s skill with similar force, writing that he ´handles English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most (if not any) of his English-born contemporaries.´
With greater exposure came the complications of the literary life. In an essay on Lowell, who was subject to periods of instability, Walcott recalls visiting him in New York. ´I admired, with casualness, a pale orange-and-brown-figured tie he wore. He took it off and gave it to me. I did not fawn on Lowell the poet. I did not collect bits of his clothing like his valet. Yet he once made a terrible accusation as if I were. ´You use people,´ he told me. It was a night when he was ´going off.´ . . . The insult went deep. Did he think that I had cultivated his friendship to advance my career? I was not an American poet. I did not think in those terms. For there to be a career there has to be a tradition, and my new literature had none.´
But with each book Walcott´s reputation was established more firmly in the canon of contemporary poetry in English. He became, according to a review in Poetry, ´one of a dozen or so poets writing in English who deserve constant and informed attention.´
Walcott calls himself a ´mongrel,´ a ´neither proud nor ashamed bastard,´ a ´hybrid.´ Robert Pinsky, a former poet laureate and a colleague of Walcott´s at Boston University, wrote to me, ´Derek is notably aware of the clichÃ©s and defies them not by an ideological or aesthetic agenda but by being himself: by embodying, for instance, his own cosmopolitan, eclectic blending of cultures. . . . Derek contradicts the ´exoticist´ and the touristic ways of perceiving his homeland´and perhaps he defies academic theories of the Post-Colonial as well. He encourages his readers to see St. Lucia and the Caribbean as crossroads of many strands´as all cultures are: in this case, African threads and European threads, as well as Asian ones.´
Walcott considers himself a writer of the diaspora, and the poets he most identifies with´and whose friendship has sustained him´are also Ã©migrÃ©s. One of them was Joseph Brodsky, whom he met in 1977, at Robert Lowell´s funeral. By that point, Walcott had begun teaching periodically in American universities, and in 1982 he was hired as a visiting professor at Harvard. Brodsky was a frequent guest, and, when Seamus Heaney arrived to teach, the three formed a triumvirate of future Nobel Prize winners living in self-imposed exile. ´Derek´s apartment in Brookline turned into a kind of time machine,´ Heaney wrote to me. ´It was like being back in your first clique as a young poet´´Heaney was in his forties, and had published five books´´with all your original greed for the goods and the gossip of poetry instantly refreshed. Poems being quoted and poets being praised or faulted, extravagantly; anecdotes exchanged; jokes told; but underneath all the banter and hilarity there was a prospector´s appetite in each of us for the next poem we ourselves might write. We were high on each other´s company and that kept the critical standard-setter alive and well in each of us.´
Among his students, Walcott developed a reputation as an electrifying, difficult teacher, a person known for his strong judgments and occasionally off-color remarks. After his one semester at Harvard, a female student in his poetry workshop accused him of harassment, saying that earlier in the semester Walcott had propositioned her. She felt that she´d been given a lower grade than she deserved, and said that it was because she´d rebuffed Walcott´s advance. In the small literary community of Cambridge and Boston, the accusation sparked a furor. It was a heated topic at literary gatherings for the next few weeks, and threatened in some cases to rupture relations between friends who fell out on opposite sides. Walcott´s many supporters cited the long delay between the incident and the complaint as evidence that the student hadn´t genuinely felt harassed. In any case, the contretemps at Harvard didn´t affect Walcott´s appointment at Boston University, where he has been teaching since.
The poet Elizabeth Alexander, who was Walcott´s student at B.U., remembers being amazed by his poetry. ´Literary and oral traditions come together seamlessly in his work and in the work of his contemporaries,´ she wrote to me. ´There´s the fusion of what Walcott called ´a sound colonial education´ with an astonishingly rich oral tradition´it blows open what the poetry of the black and brown world can be.´ Another former student, who was in Walcott´s class at B.U. in the early eighties, spoke of the intellectual intensity that characterized Walcott´s teaching. ´He had an unconcealed disdain for the deracinated, one-dimensional ´workshop´-type poem that was fairly prevalent then,´ he said. ´He couldn´t take them seriously. He once said to the class, ´The problem is that you Americans think poetry is democratic, that anyone can write it. It´s not´it´s aristocratic.´´
In ´The Fortunate Traveller,´ which came out in 1981, Walcott began to address the geographic dislocation of the itinerant scholar and the strain of trying to find inspiration in a new landscape. ´Old New England´ is a surging homage to Lowell: ´Black clippers, tarred with whales´ blood, fold their sails / entering New Bedford, New London, New Haven.´ But the book´s mood is mostly gusty and bleak: ´Here, in Manhattan, I lead a tight life / and a cold one, my soles stiffen with ice / even through woollen socks. . . . I am thinking of an exile farther than any country. / And, in this heart of darkness, I cannot believe / they are now talking over palings by the doddering / banana fences, or that seas can be warm.´
The exile was always only temporary. After the teaching and readings and cocktail parties held in his honor up North were over, Walcott always returned home, to that cracked place the Caribbean.
Walcott´s masterpiece is an epic poem in seven books, ´Omeros´ (1990), which reimagines, in long-lined tercets, the archetypal ancient-Greek text´Homer´s ´Odyssey´´with black bodies and black voices. The poem is the perfect marriage of Walcott´s classicism and his nativism, and a hymn to the seductiveness of the ancient world: ´When would the sails drop from my eyes, when would I not hear the Trojan Way / in two fishermen cursing?´ he asks. Set in St. Lucia, it tells of a poet living among imagined characters from history´not Helen of Troy but Helen of St. Lucia, a beautiful waitress. He describes sitting in a tourist restaurant, watching a waiter ferry gin-and-lime drinks to sunbathers on the beach, when both he and the waiter see a ´mirage´:
. . . now the mirage
dissolved to a woman with a madras head-tie,
but the head proud, although it was looking for work.
I felt like standing in homage to a beauty
that left, like a ship, widening eyes in its wake.
´Who the hell is that?´ a tourist near my table
asked a waitress. The waitress said, ´She? She too proud!´
As the carved lids of the unimaginable
ebony mask unwrapped from its cotton-wool cloud,
the waitress sneered, ´Helen.´ And all the rest followed.
With ´Omeros´´whose drama revolves around the narrator´s love for Helen and his competition with her other suitors´Walcott draws parallels between the relative ´primitivism´ of his characters´ lives and the epic primitivism of characters in Homer. The poem gives anecdote and gossip´the ´letters´ of the Caribbean´the permanence of art.
Using classicism on such a scale, Walcott legitimatized the themes of his previous books: his culture had existed all along, made up of everything the larger world had dumped there, including language. Reviewing the poem in the Times Book Review, Mary Lefkowitz noted, ´References to the ancient past, brief and insubstantial as they may seem, form the foundation of Mr. Walcott´s poem. They endow his new characters and situations with heroism; they suggest that their experiences, particular as they are to specific places and present times, are also timeless and universal.´
The epic is natural to Walcott. ´I come from a place that likes grandeur,´ he has said. ´It likes large gesture; it is not inhibited by flourish; it is a society of physical performance; it is a society of style.´ St. Lucia is also a place that, having had relatively little written about it, lives, still, in a vague sphere where time does not seem to exist, and where dates have little resonance. What resonates are individual stories, the image of the island´s various straight-backed Helens walking to market, seemingly impervious to the ever-changing weather, or to history.
We drove, and Walcott pointed out the handmade signs dotting the hamlets we passed through. Many of the signs, advertising drink in English and French (´Boissons Coca-Cola!´), had perfectly rendered black faces´some with red lips´floating around the calligraphy.
Walcott said, ´Look at the beauty of that. And then you think of someone like Vidia´´Naipaul´´saying that there is no culture down here. That we are primitive. That we make nothing. Crap! Well, there it is. Take a look.´
We had reached SoufriÃ¨re. Little wooden shacks, broken and brown, led to the town square. We stopped near a filling station and got out. On one of the cobblestone streets rambling down to the waterfront and the blue sea beyond were a number of policemen, dressed in stiff, immaculate black suits and black hats. The policemen were as black as their suits. Sigrid, fluttering in white linens, went to find out why the men had congregated. She came back. ´There´s been a funeral!´ she said. A local dignitary had died. Death did not seem like a possibility just then, under the blue-and-white sky. There were fruit sellers sitting in front of buildings that had been designed in the French colonial style, and Walcott went up to one of them. He reached for a fruit that he remembered from his childhood. It was a pomme arac, red and specked and shaped like a guava.
Walcott said, ´When we were boys, we used to throw stones to catch this fruit from the tree.´ He rubbed it tenderly.
´Don´t touch that,´ the fruit seller said. She was black and old and fierce. Walcott blushed.
´Then why is the damn thing out there?´ he asked sharply.
´Then I buy,´ he said, and reprimanded her in patois for scolding him.
Walcott bit into the pomme arac. ´We have to wash it first, Dodo!´ Sigrid said. Walcott turned away from the fruit seller and looked at the sea, and the woman turned away from him. Dropping his pit on the ground, Walcott said, ´I´m hungry.´ He seemed put off by the bad moment, vulnerable and therefore cross and silent.
We got back into the car. Sigrid said, ´Let´s go to the Dasheene restaurant. We can see the Pitons´´twin volcanic peaks thrusting out of the bay. We drove up one hill and then another. We reached the Ladera resort, where the restaurant was. Years before, the hotel had been part of a plantation. Now it was a grand retreat for those who could afford it. Many of the bungalows were made of dark wood and stood in the shade of thick vines with elephant-eared leaves. We walked up a long, steep staircase that led to the open-air restaurant. Sigrid posed Walcott and me for photographs against the Pitons and the sky.
We sat down. On the menu there was a dish called ´Derek Walcott Acra´´a salt fish cake with Creole sauce served with sweet-potato fries.
´Hello, Mr. Walcott,´ the waitress said, approaching. She was young and pretty and thin, and was dressed in a skimpy piece of madras cloth. She reminded me of Walcott´s Helen. Walcott turned away from her, mock dismissive.
´I´m not speaking to you, you know,´ he said.
´Oh! Mr. Walcott! Why?´ She seemed legitimately concerned.
´Dodo!´ Sigrid said, chuckling, toying with her camera.
´You´re rude to me, you know,´ Walcott said to the young girl, who did not laugh. ´You deserve lash! You want lash!´
Walcott pulled the girl over his knee and began to spank her. The girl squealed. Now she was laughing. Her fear had turned to relief.
Walcott let the girl up. ´Now you´re rude no more, huh?´
´Oh, Dodo!´ Sigrid said, laughing, before turning her attention to what she and Walcott could and should not eat, given their diet.
Walcott´s house is actually three houses resting on a bluff above the sea. There´s the main house, where he and Sigrid eat and sleep; his studio; and another little house, for guests. At the center of the structures is a white lap pool. The interior of the main house is dark, and the rooms are like cabins on a ship. There are couches and bookcases. Walcott´s studio has a loft with a bed. On the lower level, where he works, some of his paintings are stacked on the floor or tucked into big wooden flat files. His manual typewriter, an Olivetti, faces the sea. Sigrid told me, ´When Derek won the prize, he said, ´Quick, find a house!´ He never really owned much of anything before.´
When I arrived, Sigrid was on her way to do some errands. There was a great deal of back-and-forth about where we should have dinner later. ´Darling, we will never have dinner if you exhaust me with conversation,´ Walcott said, calmly. Sigrid laughed. She kissed him and went off.
Walcott and I walked to a little grove off the side of the main house. We sat at a table in the shade. The sea crashed against the rocks below us. Walcott began to speak of his marginal existence.
´I feel even in the presence of contemporary American poets, and good ones, and English poets, a sense of isolation. I´m not physically one of them. And I don´t think I want to be one of them. This is a very important thing. You go to one of those parties, you come in and there´s a collective glance in your direction and you say, ´Oh, there is the old nigger thing, they don´t want me here.´ But that´s not it. It´s the instant of veiled acceptance that you recognize. Because you are a little bit of a phenomenon. You are treated as a phenomenon, as if you have a miraculous or freakish kind of intelligence that has slipped into the context of English poetry, or American poetry. It isn´t like you want to join the club. It´s the reality of the English you speak.´ Walcott laughed. He relishes living in a place that doesn´t carry his books, a place where successive generations may know who he is but not what he has done to help the world see them. With obvious amusement, he told me about one recent day when he was painting in Gros Islet, a town near Castries. ´These boys came up to me, asking questions,´ he said. ´I ignored them. One boy wanted to touch my paints. I told him to go away. They said that what I was painting didn´t look like the thing they saw. One boy came up to me and said, ´You artist?´´