Caribbean Man…Derek Walcott
On March 19th, I was scrolling through the photo-feed on my Instagram and I came across a post by Fatima Bhutto. Fatima’s post was a poem by Derek Walcott, the famed Westindian poet and Nobel Prize receiver from the island of St. Lucia, located in the Caribbean Sea. Immediately, I was excited and I liked the photo. I later reposted the photo onto my Instagram page, too. If you are wondering, I write Westindian as one word and not two, as normally prescribed. I do this in reverence to another Caribbean poet, Alister Hughes, from the island of Grenada. Mr. Hughes said “Don’t write West Indies with a space. That space divides, it’s out of place. Let’s write Westindies as we should, proud symbol of our nationhood.”
Photo of Alister Hughes
In the comment section of Fatima’s post, I wrote “Glad to see Caribbean/West Indian writers on this beautiful Sunday evening…grew up eating these colourful fruits of knowledge. #foodforthought.” I grew up reading poetry, short stories, essays and fiction from and by authors of the Caribbean and authors who identify as ‘West Indian Writers’ so whenever I see them outside the region, I get extremely excited.
Little did I know, Fatima’s post was in remembrance to the passing of Mr. Walcott. The reality of his passing came to me via an e-mail, a week later, by Caldwell Taylor, a Grenadian Historian and former U.N. Ambassador. In the body of the e-mail was a eulogy to Mr. Walcott in a conglomerated artistic formation—the eulogy was half poetry, a quarter short story and another quarter was in essay style. And this is the moment when it hit, Derek Walcott is dead. Fatima didn’t write “RIP” or anything to hint that this is a mark of death or remembrance, as per the usual. Though, I thought it was odd she mentioned Mr. Walcott. It was not normal for her Instagram-feed because she hasn’t mentioned anything from the region in the form of poetry, prior. Her only engagement to the Caribbean was through Cuba—Fidel’s passing, and her visit there to write an article, a few years back, which was mentioned in her memoir, Songs of Blood and Sword.
But something only a native can understand and render comprehensible is visible in Caldwell’s reflection on Mr. Walcott. It is only through the eyes and ears of someone who grew up on the fruits of such labours of existence, like Mr. Walcott, can a reflection like Caldwell’s live. The poetry is only present in the nature in which it was created—where it was given birth, nourished, and blossomed. The sea, the sky, the soil, the plants, the animals, the flowers and its people, are all entangled. Caldwell’s reflection is entitled Death of a Helmsman, which I find congenial. Caldwell marks the potency of Mr. Walcott’s words and the transformative force it occupies and how it can turn “slums of the Empire” into “Antillian flowers that bloom.” In a place like the Caribbean where ghosts are not “ghosts” but interlocutors, Mr. Walcott’s poetry lives. Poetry brings freedom. It brings flight. It brings transcendence. But most of all, it reminds the reader of life’s beauty—in all her forms and variations. Caldwell reminds us of Mr. Walcott’s travels throughout the Caribbean and his relationship to the Sea, Caldwell writes, “Walcott’s breathing (also his thinking) imitates the mood of the sea. Life is a tidal affair and Shakespeare confirms. Walcott agrees, Sea Is History.” Caldwell continues by quoting from Mr. Walcott’s poem: “Where are your monuments, your battles, and martyrs? Where is your tribal memory? Sirs, in that grey vault. The sea. The sea has locked them up. The sea is history.” Caldwell then connects this to the missing remains of Grenada’s former Prime Minister, Maurice Bishop, by saying “Those lines call up images of Maurice: martyr, memory, sea.” Caldwell then connects this to a quote by Karl Marx, which is fitting, given the connection to Maurice and Grenada during the 70s and early 80s; “Men make their own history, but they do not do it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” And this is how Shakespeare, Marx, Maurice, Mr. Walcott and Caldwell are connected, through the sea and History. And I am reminded of a quote from J.D Salinger that I hold dear. He said, “Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.”
I grew up reading Mr. Walcott’s poetry alongside the works of Sam Selvon, Earl Lovelace and George Lamming. On the bookshelf in my bedroom are books from my school days, filled with markings, highlights, and comments in the margins. The books are a reminder of times past, of times forgotten, and of times to be remembered. It is a relic of the past which renders History not something of the dead but something that lives in the everyday, through words, through speech, through memory, and through family. I am left with these questions as I ponder on the significance of his passing and of the relics on my bookshelf: What is memory? What do we lose when we construct memory from the acute experience? Is memory the same as the lived experience? Is memory an individual act or a collective remembering—or both? Can memory and memories become the lived experience, meaning…memory has taken on a new life, forming the subjects’ current state of being—his/her identity?
Photo of George Lamming
Photo of Sam Selvon
Photo of Earl Lovelace
I am currently reading Renato Rosaldo’s The Day of Shelley’s Death in which he defines his work as anthropoetry—the marriage of ethnography and poetry, rendered visible only through his relationship to Anthropology. In it, his memories of his deceased wife are embedded within his every day. Her memories are now part of him and his memories of her, have congeal to form something new, including a new sense of self. As I write this, a thought comes to mind: What is the difference between the poetry of men and the poetry of women? Is there something identifiable?
There is something that my soul responds to when I read the poetry from the Caribbean men mentioned above, there is a sense of belonging, a sense of identity, a sense of comprehension that resides outside of geography, but more of a soul expression. Westindian writers bring something to the table that is uniquely theirs and no one else’s. Benjamin Netanyahu said of his brother, Yoni, who died in 1976 during the Entebbe Raid, that his writings were an expression of his soul. This soul expression, I believe is the fingerprint of each of these Westindian writers who have bled on the pages as they write, leaving colour, and life, on the blank white pages as they navigate through space and time, and back again. As the ink and blood dries, the pattern that is left is nourishment for the mind, body and the soul. After all, blood carries DNA and all the necessary source of life. Like ink, blood is life. It is living, even when it is outside the body. Now, I’m left with this existential question: What is the purpose of poetry? What should we do with poetry and the words written and uttered by poets? What does poetry as a literary genre, do to our soul?
Poetry, reminds me of the sacred spaces where reality and the imagination come together to create something new, something aberrant, and, most of all, something divine. Something that is substantial and sustains because it promotes life and living. It is a unique space where new vision is possible. As Edith Wharton said donkey’s years ago, “True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision.”
With love, adoration and utter gratitude, I end this letter to Mr. Walcott and to all that he’s done for me—and for us.
This is my elegy to you, Sir, and to Sam, and to Alister, a peaceful rest.
Photo of Derek Walcott