Caribbean artists remember poet Derek Walcott
Since Nobel laureate and Caribbean poet and playwright Derek Walcott died Friday, remembrances have flooded in for the complicated but mighty writer, who captured the lush beauty of the Caribbean and the brutality of its colonial history.
We’ve collected several of these tributes, from a Caribbean street photographer, poets and other writers. Many pointed to the importance of one Walcott poem, “The Sea is History,” which argues that the history of the Caribbean cannot be stolen, because it is in the sea. The landscape was often at the center of Walcott’s work.
Read those remembrances — along with “The Sea is History”– below. These comments have been edited lightly for length and clarity.
From Ruddy Roye, a Jamaican street photographer whose work often focuses on the lives of the forgotten — the “raw and gritty lives,” he says — especially those of home:
I believe when Caribbean people talk about Walcott, we talk about him under the stars after a night at the club. We sit on our cars or against the nightclub walls reminiscing about how we felt in literature class after reading one of his poems.
We would talk about being imbued with an identity solely scraped up out of the ashes of mediocre lives. In his poetry, his grandiose sentences, Walcott was able to unlock feelings of shame that we felt about being descendants of slaves. His writings were able to inspire the best in many, especially his fellow artists who reached for the spaces to sculpt our own personalities. Caribbean people enjoy feeling like they are from the Caribbean. And Walcott’s poetry made us feel like we belonged — that we were not shaped by the hands of our colonizers but architects of our own stories.
My favorite poem by him is “A Far Cry From Africa.” The culture that Derek Walcott helped to foster in the Caribbean (one of pride, rooted in the voices of our ancestors) is something that continues to inform my photography. I look at how black images have been defined in the past and hope that my work continues to redefine how we, the “other” here and around the globe, see black folks.
From Patrick Sylvain, a Haitian-American poet, essayist and instructor of Haitian Language and Culture at Brown University, who also writes about landscape, as in this poem on Port-Au Prince:
When I met Derek Walcott in the fall of 1989, I had no idea that I was in the presence of a Herculean poet. I was young and relatively unfamiliar with the Caribbean-Anglophone poets. I was with a member of the Dark Room Collective when we went to pick Walcott up from his Boston apartment, and I remember as soon as I entered I was in awe of his books and paintings. The vibrant colors, and the vivid details; such beauty, I thought. I wanted to ask him innumerable questions about St.Lucia, Trinidad, and his paintings, but I was timid, and his piercing gaze reminded me of my grandfather. I remained silent until he said to me: “Ou ka pale patois (Can you speak patois)?” His question puzzled me because I spoke Haitian Creole and not patois. I thought about it for a quick second and answered in the affirmative. He smiled at me and handed me one of his books, “mwen sav ou pa posede liv sa a (I know you do not have this book)!” The autographed book he gave me was “The Arkansas Testament,” the first book of his that I read and fell in love with. I’m thinking of the poem “Saint Lucia’s First Communion” in which the condition of children on the island exposes the ongoing dilemma of being a former colonial subject shackled by rituals and poverty.
That Sunday, after Derek Walcott read his poems to us, I began to realize his grandeur as a poet. I purchased “Midsummer” from him. I was utterly excited by the prospect of entering the Caribbean landscape through the sensibility of a methodical and lyrical poet.
And after our first encounter, we frequently ran into each other at restaurants, his readings, the theater, with friends. We often discussed politics and literature. Despite the controversies that often surrounded him, I knew him as a beautiful, kind, reservedly funny soul, and also as someone who cared deeply about the Caribbean. Just as Robert Pinsky, Yusef Komunyakaa, Seamus Heaney and Martín Espada have been influential in my work, Derek Walcott has encouraged me to embrace my hybridized, trans-national Caribbean self and to understand that aesthetic has no geographical boundary. And through Derek Walcott’s poetry, I am forever reminded that “The Sea Is History.”
From Ishion Hutchinson, a Jamaican poet and essayist, who also examines the Caribbean’s colonial history:
Derek’s works proves and sustains what Hemingway — an author he revered — calls “grace under pressure,” which I take to mean a duty to poetry, a faith in its craft without compromise in spite of failure or success. I am in awe of that devotion, an awe I guard jealously because I am from his world, the Caribbean — though there are marked differences in our experience of it — which he celebrates and holds accountable. I try to avoid telling anecdotes of my encounters with him because they all mean something deeply personal to me. Every single, average moment was magical and I feel talking about it reduces what I cherish and cannot voice about his presence.
But this one I will share, about visiting him one autumn 10 years ago at Boston University, where he was teaching a playwriting class. After the session, he took the students to a Chinese restaurant, and during the walk there he and I sort of tagged along in the back. Even then I was thinking of the strangeness of walking with him, us in winter coats, leaves swirling about; the scene was like from a film. Not a lot was said, and most of it repeated questions. “You really like George Barker?” he asked me a few times, and my answer was the same yes with different words. But when I told him the Jamaican filmmaker Perry Henzell had died, he stopped in the leaves on the pavement and looked at me for a very long time. I wish now I could remember precisely what he said after the long silent stare, but it amounted to “he was a good man and a good artist.” We then walked on to the restaurant.
From Kwame Dawes, a poet, editor and essayist who was born in Ghana, but spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. Reggae music in particular has influenced his work:
I think I came across Walcott’s work for the first time in the 1970s, while I was in high school in Jamaica. By the time I got to university, Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite were the two major Caribbean poets. There was a tremendous amount of intellectual discussion, like there is with Michael Jackson and Prince, asking: Who is greatest? These were the lines of ideological discourse, which was a lot of nonsense because they were coming from similar grounds. I felt my experience with reading Walcott was that I struggled to understand everything he was writing, but I went back to it because of its sinuous metaphor and the intensity of language. Brathwaite was more immediately accessible, while Walcott had this ambition in writing the landscape of the Caribbean.
I met Walcott probably in the 1990s, and I’ve met him and interviewed him on stage on several occasions. He’s known for being a bit of a curmudgeon in talking about work, but my experience is that I found him generous and thoughtful. In my work I’m often both quarreling with him and being guided by him, and I think he appreciated that — the conflicted sense of that.
I think the poem “Sea of History” is a stunning poem and it’s so iconic. He introduces the idea of the Caribbean and creates this incredible conversation around the Caribbean person being told they have no history, or that they are deprived of a sense of history. But he says our history is in the sea. That’s where our cathedrals, our tombs are. Its Walcott facing tradition, and ruins and landscape, and saying: I still have a place in that landscape. It’s saying art that comes out of the Caribbean, comes out of the landscape. He says that we can write all we want but it’s irrelevant, because the landscape is the poem. It’s a clear political statement being made. And in the poem we see his wonderful rhetorical skills and exploration of place and identity.
Below, read “The Sea is History,” and poems Dawes and Roye wrote after Walcott’s death:
THE SEA IS HISTORY
By Derek Walcott
Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.
First, there was the heaving oil,
heavy as chaos;
then, like a light at the end of a tunnel,
the lantern of a caravel,
and that was Genesis.
Then there were the packed cries,
the shit, the moaning:
Bone soldered by coral to bone,
mantled by the benediction of the shark’s shadow,
that was the Ark of the Covenant.
Then came from the plucked wires
of sunlight on the sea floor
the plangent harps of the Babylonian bondage,
as the white cowries clustered like manacles
on the drowned women,
and those were the ivory bracelets
of the Song of Solomon,
but the ocean kept turning blank pages
looking for History.
Then came the men with eyes heavy as anchors
who sank without tombs,
brigands who barbecued cattle,
leaving their charred ribs like palm leaves on the shore,
then the foaming, rabid maw
of the tidal wave swallowing Port Royal,
and that was Jonah,
but where is your Renaissance?
Sir, it is locked in them sea-sands
out there past the reef’s moiling shelf,
where the men-o’-war floated down;
strop on these goggles, I’ll guide you there myself.
It’s all subtle and submarine,
through colonnades of coral,
past the gothic windows of sea-fans
to where the crusty grouper, onyx-eyed,
blinks, weighted by its jewels, like a bald queen;
and these groined caves with barnacles
pitted like stone
are our cathedrals,
and the furnace before the hurricanes:
Gomorrah. Bones ground by windmills
into marl and cornmeal,
and that was Lamentations—
that was just Lamentations,
it was not History;
then came, like scum on the river’s drying lip,
the brown reeds of villages
mantling and congealing into towns,
and at evening, the midges’ choirs,
and above them, the spires
lancing the side of God
as His son set, and that was the New Testament.
Then came the white sisters clapping
to the waves’ progress,
and that was Emancipation—
jubilation, O jubilation—
as the sea’s lace dries in the sun,
but that was not History,
that was only faith,
and then each rock broke into its own nation;
then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote,
fireflies with bright ideas
and bats like jetting ambassadors
and the mantis, like khaki police,
and the furred caterpillars of judges
examining each case closely,
and then in the dark ears of ferns
and in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo
of History, really beginning.
“The Sea Is History” from THE POETRY OF DEREK WALCOTT 1948-2013 by Derek Walcott, selected by Glyn Maxwell. Copyright © 2014 by Derek Walcott.
Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Faber & Faber.
FOR DEREK WALCOTT
“…For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.” Paul (2Cor.1:20)
By Kwame Dawes
In the black box, the lights isolate emotion
with theatrical efficiency—every gesture is art,
as if in the clean, rehearsed moments, the word
as the beginning of all things, and glorious yes
of possibility, must be followed by the congregants
saying Amen—this is the holy theatre, a world
I have come to think of as a home place, a shelter,
the womb of my art. So there in that black box
deep inside a winter storm in Providence, they
tell me the old man has slipped into his first sleep,
and his editor calls each day to listen to the soft
ebb and flow of the sea in his breathing. No one
wants to say “all is silence now”, but we do know
that after the poem is over, what remains is a soft
pulse of the sea where we the Makaks of history
find our cathedrals, our history, our glorious tomb.
I did not expect the thickening pain in my throat,
as if I could fall down and weep—I did not expect
the moment to be like this, but it was and here
is the beginning of our lamentation. For weeks
I have carried in my head the calculation of greatness—
how ambitious was the madman Lowell, how
full of the privilege of his New England elitism,
how it is that every time I think of the Boston police
coming to secure him and carry him to another dark
asylum, I can only think that I envy him the dignity
they afforded him; and I think that the St. Lucian
would have known that five white Boston cops
would not sit at his breakfast table while he shivered
and ranted and read for them “The Sea is History”,
before deporting him to the asylum of fire and healing.
This is the way history arrests ambition. We migrants stay
sane so that we can live to go mad in our secret chambers.
But the old man has slipped into his first sleep and at last
all his promises of last poems, last words, last
testaments, seem fulfilled. This is not yet an elegy, merely
an effort to clear the glue in my throat, and a way
of saying that his art comes to me burnished with
so many grand yeses; and on this morning of grey
chill, I have learned to pray for language, just enough
to offer a word of company for the old man. The word
is waves—not original, surely, but I offer it—the sea,
the soft waves reaching the coast, the pulling back,
the soft snore of a man waiting to leave the shore at last.
March 16th, 2017
By Ruddy Roye
The time has come
words no longer respond to the pen,
age is neither shadow
or a new smell,
or the melted smiles that flows out as tears.
At that moment,
when life stops,
when the everlasting sound
that leaves our lips,
is the echo of the “tock”
and the grey hovering realization
that this face
will no longer stare back
is the tick
trying to unhitch its fangs
from the neck and names
of this world,
we stare back at the face
of the broken clock.
to wade across the river
with only our tired feet
to take us around the dreamy bend,
at the end,
there is no light that shines
only our rattling voices
echoing in our throats
before losing its roots.