The West Indies have produced a number of writers of world stature. Name CLR James, Derek Walcott, Wilson Harris, VS Naipaul, Roy Heath, Martin Carter, Kamau Brathwaite, and Earl Lovelace and you name eight of them. Among these, Derek Walcott stands out as the greatest poet now writing in the English language. As he has grown older his work is as beautiful and compelling as it ever was. His name honoured the Nobel Prize as much as the prize honoured him.
He was born and spent his youth in St Lucia. He studied at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. For years he wrote and produced and directed plays in Trinidad. Despite all his subsequent travelling he has remained rooted in the West Indies. His universal themes spring from a deeply felt West Indian experience.
He is by far the best playwright the West Indies has yet produced. But, for me, above even that achievement his poetry stands as the great endeavour of his life. At the age of 19 two small collections, 25 Poems and Epitaph For the Young, were published by a small printer in Kingston, Jamaica. Since then his books of poems have come out regularly – In a Green Night, The Castaway, The Gulf, Another Life, Sea Grapes, The Star-Apple Kingdom, The Fortunate Traveller, Midsummer, Omeros and the latest White Egrets to name some of them – and have established him as one of the very few absolutely outstanding poets writing in English.
In all this rich treasure, there is a short and simple poem not at all on the scale of Walcott’s mighty poem-books Another Life and Omeros but whose plain, perfected beauty has stayed in my mind since I first read it in the collection In a Green Night, published in 1962.
A Letter From Brooklyn
An old lady writes me in a spidery style,
Each character trembling, and I see a veined hand
Pellucid as paper, travelling on a skein
Of such frail thoughts its thread is often broken;
Or else the filament from which a phrase is hung
Dims to my sense, but caught, it shines like steel,
As touch a line, and the whole web will feel.
She describes my father, yet I forget her face
More easily than my father’s yearly dying;
Of her I remember small, buttoned boots and the place
She kept in our wooden church on those Sundays
Whenever her strength allowed;
Grey haired, thin voiced, perpetually bowed.
‘I am Mabel Rawlins,’ she writes, ‘and know both your
He is dead, Miss Rawlins, but God bless your tense:
‘Your father was a dutiful, honest,
Faithful and useful person.’
For such plain praise what fame is recompense?
‘A horn-painter, he painted delicately on horn,
He used to sit around the table and paint pictures.’
The peace of God needs nothing to adorn
It, nor glory nor ambition.
‘He is twenty-eight years buried,’ she writes, ‘he was
And is, I am sure, doing greater work.’
The strength of one frail hand in a dim room
Somewhere in Brooklyn, patient and assured,
Restores my sacred duty to the Word.
‘Home, home,’ she can write, with such short time to live,
Alone as she spins the blessings of her years;
Not withered of beauty if she can bring such tears,
Nor withdrawn from the world that breaks its lovers so;
Heaven is to her the place where painters go,
All who bring beauty on frail shell or horn,
There was all made, thence their lux-mundi drawn,
Drawn, drawn till the thread is resilient steel,
Lost though it seems in darkening periods,
And there they return to do work that is God’s.
So this old lady writes, and again I believe,
I believe it all, and for no man’s death I grieve.
This is a poem miniature but perfect in scale. One of Walcott’s fundamental motivations is “to speak the name of all the humble.” And in Walcott also love is the spring and power that drives the poetry.
In ‘Letter From Brooklyn‘ we are shown in a small compass what it sometimes takes whole volumes to explain – the unshakable faith of those who are humble and the redeeming power of unquestioning love.