Derek Walcott (1930-2017): a remembrance
Derek Walcott, recipient of the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature, died last week in his native Saint Lucia. Walcott’s muse was Caribbean but his reach was global. His death has triggered an outpouring of tributes, reflections and memories of the man hailed as one of the world’s finest poets writing in English.
I have memories of my own. For almost 25 years, I have known him from a distance, as the famous friend and long-time theatrical collaborator of my husband, Michael Gilkes. Because Derek was already a Nobel laureate when I met him, I was never fully able to shake off a tendency towards mute alarm in his presence, awed by his monumental talent and acerbic wit. But recently, I have been able to see the normal human life stretched to contain its colossal gift.
Last year in Saint Lucia, the words on a plaque outside a National Trust house gave me a glimpse of his early life:
Mama’s sewing machine, a Singer,
pedaled and stitched the house’s human freight
and a great kannanng tree there lit every scene
down Chaussée Road
from The Trusted House by Derek Walcott
As I stood in front of the lovingly restored house where Derek Walcott spent his childhood, I imagined “Teacher Alix”, widowed early, bringing up three children alone on her schoolteacher’s salary, which she supplemented by taking in sewing. Despite her straitened circumstances, she made sure that the daily bread of her daughter and twin boys included poetry, art and music.
Did she know, as she read them plays and recited poems, that in one of those children running along the road in sleepy, colonial Castries there was a great destiny waiting to be fulfilled? That one day, when one of the twins was a grown man, he would receive the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award”?
Probably not. But when 18-year-old Derek asked his mother for a loan to self-publish the poems he had written to date, she understood enough to raise the required $200. Her son sold 25 Poems door-to-door until he had repaid the debt. His life of extraordinary ambition and achievement had begun.
Derek Walcott’s mother, the teacher, had provided an environment in which her children could flourish. She had cast her bread upon the waters, not knowing where the ripples would take it; it is the loving charge of all teachers.
At this time of reflection, I remember the task of teaching Walcott’s work to Caribbean literature students at the Bermuda College. It was never easy, for several reasons. First, for some students, the Caribbean was a place where Bermudians went on cruises. The historical, cultural and political crossroads that is the Caribbean was something to be learnt. The institution of colonialism had to be understood as the foundation of Caribbean societies and the tumult and promise of independence movements had also to be grasped. Then, there were the people. Black and white, that familiar Bermudian paradigm, were joined by Indian, Chinese and Syrian, not to mention indigenous Arawak and Carib. Although there were differences, it didn’t take long for my Bermuda students to see that we shared both blood and history with the Caribbean — and that made us family. Absorbing that concept enabled my students to walk through the doorway to the region’s literature.
Even then, Walcott was a challenge. It was no coincidence that teaching Walcott often felt like teaching Shakespeare, for, like Shakespeare, Walcott thought in metaphors with each line of verse, each word, suggesting multiple spheres of meaning. I often had to choose between a laborious excavation of each line or a joyous reading aloud of a whole poem, just so that the students could hear the beauty of the language. Neither was satisfactory, the result of each decision lessened by the absence of the other.
There was never enough time to render a true account of Walcott’s brilliance. But we persevered and in the few texts that were covered — like The Saddhu of Couva, A Far Cry from Africa and Laventille — the students perceived, as through a glass dimly, some of the main preoccupations of the poet.
He put everything to work in his art: from the universal themes of imagination, love and death to those themes specific to Caribbean history, such as conquest, slavery and rebellion. As a voracious reader from early childhood, Walcott had a deep appreciation of not only the classics of English literature but the literatures of Greece and Rome.
According to the Jamaican poet Kei Miller, Walcott “was taking on Shakespeare, he was taking on Chaucer, he was taking on Dante — all these were his forefathers and he thought himself equal to them”.
He did not have to imitate them, as they were already part of him. But unlike his literary ancestors, he was from the brave new world of the Caribbean, where the violent collision of the races had created something unique. He declared the power of this hybrid world in the words of the mixed-race character Shabine:
I have Dutch, nigger and English in me,
and either I’m nobody, or I’m a
from The Schooner Flight by Derek Walcott
When he began to come into prominence in the 1970s, Walcott was criticised by some for not being “black enough”. His response was that he was “a Caribbean writer” and his poetry and plays speak in diverse voices, illuminating the sufferings and triumphs of different groups and different islands.
As I recall those classes, there is one thing that I hope that the students will have retained: that Derek Walcott and a handful of other writers created a literature from the red soil and the blue sea of those islands. Where there had been nothing, there is now a great body of work of international quality. They did it through talent, guts and hard graft.
No one embodies the single-minded dedication to his art more than Walcott. Although that devotion took its toll on his life, he felt only gratitude for the “good luck” of being present in “the early morning of a culture”.
I also hope that the budding writers among my students will remember what Walcott said about the work and the commitment it requires: “You can’t be dumb and a poet.”
That always got a laugh. But nothing is more serious. And more true.
Going farther back in time, I settle upon my Walcott-in-Bermuda memory, as vivid as yesterday. It was Friday, November 6, 1998 at three o’clock in the morning and a gale was blowing. I was on the phone with a hapless American Airlines agent, trying to force her to assure me that the postponed flight from New York — and its precious Nobel laureate cargo — would land before the curtain rose on the West Indian Association’s production of Derek Walcott’s Remembrance.
Despite the island being in pre-election ferment, despite production hiccups large and small, the First Night performance had gone relatively smoothly. Then a nor’easter had blown in from the Maritimes and shut down JFK. When I wasn’t harassing American Airlines operatives, I was weeping down the phone to Pat Phillip-Bassett, the play’s producer, conjuring horrifying scenes of patrons demanding their money back because the Nobel Prize winner was a no-show. Only Michael, director and main actor, and the one whose personal invitation would bring Walcott to Bermuda ... only Michael was calm.
Mercifully, the wind relented, the plane took off and some 15 hours late, Derek Walcott and his partner, Sigrid Nama, landed in Bermuda in time to attend the Friday night show. Michael and his stage wife, Ruth Thomas, were a stellar pair with Ronald Lightbourne, Jane Wareham, Andra Simons, Roddy Nesbitt, Helen Cooper and Gene Steede all putting in fine performances to a packed and appreciative audience.
My student stage crew, under the tutelage of Caribbean theatre designer Ken Corsbie probably learnt more about competence and reliability in that three-night run than in a semester of lectures. Derek, not known for giving compliments, was full of praise for the show, saying it was the best piece of theatre he had seen anywhere that year and patting himself on the back for having written such a good play. He also enjoyed speaking Kweol to our producer. He and Sigrid came back to see the final performance the next night. The day after, they were gone, leaving the rest of us exhausted but happy that our Walcott play had come off with style.
That leads me to my last memory of Derek Walcott, the one that I treasure most. It is the occasion captured in the photograph when we went to visit him at his home in Saint Lucia. He was in good health and good spirits, very relaxed and funny, momentarily free of the burden of greatness. Looking out over the sea, with his lovely house behind him and a twinkle in those grey-green eyes, he said: “Not bad, eh? For a poor black boy from Chaussée Road.”
•Angela Barry, a retired Bermudian educator, is the two-times winner of the Brian Burland Award for Adult Fiction, and the author of Gorée: Point of Departure, Endangered Species and Other Stories, and the unpublished The Drowned Forest