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Head: Walcott, to me

Published: 
Saturday, March 25, 2017
The late Sir Derek Walcott. Photo courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux/ Danielle Devaux

In a recent review of Morning, Paramin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), Walcott’s final published work, I reflected on how difficult it can be to escape Sir Derek’s titanic shadow. There is frustration in that, to be certain: for new generations of poets doing important work in Caribbean space to be labelled mere derivations of grand, canonical masters. I understand chafing at the bit of this reductive approach all too well. What qualifies me, then, to elegise a poet I neither fawned over nor read substantially while he was alive?

It is in the twilight of his years that the lion’s share of my readings in Walcott has emerged. I read Morning, Paramin in one night, and I have read it several times, thereafter. I have walked through the streets of Port-of-Spain, considering how Shabine from The Schooner Flight, Walcott’s famous narrative persona-poem, might regard it, before he let the sea embrace him once more. I have dug up old copies of secondary school poetry compendiums to remember which Walcott poems were wielded against resistant English B learners, and recited The Saddhu of Couva to myself as I've driven past the Caroni cremation site.

I’ve taken down the slim, out-of-print volumes of Walcott's books, bought by my mother in her undergraduate days at UWI. I’ve read, too, the non-Caribbean poets who were Walcott’s contemporaries and dear friends: Joseph Brodsky and Seamus Heaney sit near to my desk as I write this.

Since Walcott’s death on March 17, I have been writing one public blog entry per day, focusing on one poem of Walcott’s at a time. In this way, I worked backwards with the oeuvre of the 1992 Nobel Literature Laureate: from the last book he would publish in his life, to some of the very first.

It is easy to feel oneself eclipsed as a young Caribbean creative worker. Yet, the more I read and discover of Walcott’s words—in verse, in playwriting, in essay—it is made pellucid that the Caribbean people were the last people Walcott wanted to exclude. His work created a firmament for them on the page that already existed in their functional, reality-mired lives, so that upon reading it they might say: Yes, that is how the sea seems to me, too. Yes, that is the nature of our politics in this small, back-biting place. Yes, I love the island, though often it hurts my heart.

As British poet and playwright Glyn Maxwell remarked in a November 2002 interview with Walcott, a profound and persistent hearkening to the word “home” exists across the body of the latter’s work. Walcott himself did not deny it, responding that for him, home has meant many things across the breadth of his life, many places and people, many situations both literal and figurative.

In my own readings of Walcott, his later collections—most markedly in his 2011 OCM Bocas Prize winning collection, White Egrets—mortality and home intertwine towards a pointed end. More and more, the gravity of the destinations Walcott’s narrative personas undertook found their final resting places closer and closer to tomb and grave, to the unforgiving belly of the sea. If the work began in this way, it seemed bitterly, heart-achingly fitting that it should resound to it, at the hour of its closing.

Therein, however, lies the fallacy. Nothing, least of all death, signifies an end to Walcott’s work. Blind hero-worship of any writer reduces the capacity to treat their contributions to literature critically, indeed to treat with them sensibly or meaningfully at all. I did not hero-worship Walcott, and in so doing I came to see how his lifetime in poetic service was, unflaggingly, transcendent of base heroism.

In offering a flawed, incandescent cartography of the Caribbean and its people, and in addressing the concerns of life outside the Caribbean as a native son of St Lucia, Walcott’s writing has earned the summits it dared to ascend. The boldness, the bravery, the audacity of vision required to write not only Caribbean history into verse, but world history, marks Walcott as a poet who never wasted time asking for neocolonial permissions from the white Anglophone literary canon.

Though I came late to the work of Walcott, learning this and a thousand other truths about his poems has stood me in good stead. It is never too late to buy his books of poems, to see stagings of his plays, to borrow his volumes from the library. In so doing, you open yourself to seeing the Caribbean and the world through his eyes—and ultimately, to seeing yourself better.

 

• Shivanee Ramlochan is a poet and blogger. She writes on books for the Sunday Arts Section.

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