I have been re-reading Derek Walcott and realising how much I have loved his poetry. His work seems so immortally young. I remember when I was a schoolboy reading in the magazine BIM the poems “As John to Patmos” and “A City’s Death by Fire,” written when he was still in his teens, and knew – as I knew it also when I saw Frank Worrell late cut Lance Pierre at the Queen’s Park Oval – that here was genius.
“As John to Patmos, in each love- leaping air,
O slave, soldier, worker under red trees sleeping, hear
What I swear now, as John did:
To praise love long, the living and the brown dead.”
Over the years, which have since cascaded through all our histories, he created for us a special poetic domain, “independent of the tradition he inherited, yet not altogether orphaned from it.” He belongs to us and to the world through his absolute mastery of words, which increased and increased and increased – the singing lines emerging, as it was said of Mozart’s music, as if an artery was cut and the flow of the life-blood could not be stopped.
Derek Walcott, from small St. Lucia, became a towering figure in world literature. Joseph Brodsky, the Russian Nobel Laureate, once called him the best poet writing in English. There was awed acclaim, world-wide, for his full-length narrative poem Omeros, “filtering all sorts of titanic sorrows through a limpid and ferocious intellect” – and he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Walcott himself said of Omeros, “I wrote it primarily for the Caribbean. For me it was an act of gratitude for St. Lucia, the people, the weather, the life I have lived there.” Thus, as it has always been, genius finds universality locally in lives and places remote from any mainstream or central points of history.
Even in his eighties he astonished us. His book White Egrets is as full of beauty and singing lines as all the others. As Edward Baugh of Jamaica wrote, we could never guess what port his poetic craft would put into next – when he died he was voyaging still, the words of Shabine, mariner-poet of “The Schooner FLIGHT’ beating in our ears: “I have only one theme: The bowsprit, the arrow, the longing, the lunging heart.”
Here is an extract from the first section, “Adios Carenage,” of his poem “The Schooner FLIGHT,” taken from The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979). Always I have loved this poem perhaps above all his others. Shabine takes leave from his woman, Maria Concepcion, as she sleeps, to ship out as a seaman on the schooner “FLIGHT.” He meditates:
I taking a sea-bath, I gone down the road.
I know these islands from Monos to Nassau,
a rusty head sailor with sea-green eyes
that they nickname Shabine, the patois for
any red nigger, and I, Shabine, saw
when these slums of empire was paradise.
I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,
I had a sound colonial education,
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.
But Maria Conception was all my thought
watching the sea heaving up and down
as the port side of dories, schooners, and yachts
was painted afresh by the strokes of the sun
signing her name with every reflection;
I knew when dark-haired evening put on
her bright silk at sunset, and, folding the sea,
sidled under the sheets with her starry laugh,
that there’d be no rest, there’d be no forgetting.
Is like telling mourners round the graveside
about resurrection, they want the dead back,
so I smile to myself as the bow rope untied
and the Flight swing seaward. “Is no use repeating
that the sea have more fish. I ain’t want her
dressed in the sexless light of a seraph,
I want those round brown eyes like a marmoset, and
till the day when I can lean back and laugh,
those claws that tickled my back on sweating
Sunday afternoons, like a crab on wet sand.”
As I worked, watching the rotting waves come
past the bow that scissor the sea like milk,
I swear to you all, by my mother’s milk,
by the stars that shall fly from tonight’s furnace,
that I loved them, my children, my wife, my home;
I loved them as poets love the poetry
that kills them, as drowned sailors the sea.
You ever look up from some lonely beach
and see a far schooner? Well, when I write
this poem, each phrase go be soaked in salt,
I go draw and knot every line as tight
as ropes in this rigging; in simple speech
my common language go be the wind,
my pages the sails of the schooner Flight.
As I grow older I indulge myself, in my wife’s garden lit by a late sun and hovering hummingbirds, by re-reading poems I have greatly loved. This is eminently one of those.