The decorated St Lucian poet Sir Derek Walcott is dead at the age of 87.
I feel devastated, as I’m sure many others do. Walcott’s works have delighted me, resonated with me and utterly bewitched me in greater number than any other poet.
Walcott managed to trap emotions, histories, identities in finely silken words with a deftness and majesty which is breathtaking. His ability to celebrate the diurnal, re-dream landscapes and capture the motions of exile and dislocation was profound. Walcott was a wanderer; meticulous in what he collected and generous in all he gave.
He was fundamentally conflicted in his craft, both embracing poetic conventions and frustrating them. “How choose,” he wrote, “Between this Africa and the English tongue I love? / Betray them both, or give back what they give?” He would decide to undertake, with pen poised above the ageless, all encompassing sea he so loved to render his canvas, “the monumental groaning and soldering of two great worlds, like the halves of a fruit seamed by its own bitter juice”. To enact the seemingly impossible through language.
For if language is the means by which the self is created, by which history and nations are secured, then Walcott, fluctuating between loss and hope, the personal and the national, the past and the future, was attempting something unprecedented and visionary. To carve out a place within established histories and traditions for the complex cross-cultural genealogy of the Caribbean. This restless wandering character would assert itself as Walcott’s poetic voice throughout his extensive oeuvre, bound not by place or century, but by a distinct healing goal, to bring the Caribbean home to itself in the wake of the deprivations and corrosive legacy of imperialism.
Walcott is well loved for his incomparable epic poem Omeros (which happens to be a primary focus of the dissertation I should be working on right now), his GCSE curriculum favourite Love After Love and his collections Sea Grapes and Another Life. However, it is the poem Piano Practice from his gorgeous 1982 collection The Fortunate Traveller, to which I return most often.
Rest in power and peace, Sir Walcott. Thank you for every sublime line you gave us.
“I knew when dark-haired evening put on her bright silk at sunset, and, folding the sea, sidled under the sheet 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.”
– The Schooner Flight (from his collection The Star-Apple Kingdom, 1980)
N.b. From the wordsmith himself:
Piano Practice (for Mark Strand)
April, in another fortnight, metropolitan April.
A drizzle glazes the museum’s entrance,
like their eyes when they leave you, equivocating spring!
The sun dries the avenue’s pumice façade
delicately as a girl tamps tissue on her cheek;
the asphalt shines like a silk hat,
the fountains trot like percherons round the Met,
clip, clop, clip, clop in Belle Epoque Manhattan,
as gutters part their lips to the spring rain-
down avenues hazy as Impressionist clichés,
their gargoyle cornices,
their concrete flowers on chipped pediments,
their subway stops in Byzantine mosaic-
the soul sneezes and one tries to compile
the collage of a closing century,
the epistolary pathos, the old Laforguean ache.
Deserted plazas swept by gusts of remorse,
rain-polished cobbles where a curtained carriage
trotted around a corner of Europe for the last time,
as the canals folded like concertinas.
Now fever reddens the trouble spots of the globe,
rain drizzles on the white iron chairs in the gardens.
Today is Thursday, Vallejo is dying,
but come, girl, get your raincoat, let’s look for life
in some café behind tear-streaked windows,
perhaps the fin de siècle isn’t really finished,
maybe there is a piano playing it somewhere,
as the bulbs burn through the heart of the afternoon,
in the seasons of tulips and the pale assassin.
I called the Muse, she pleaded a headache,
but maybe she was just shy at being seen
with someone who has only one climate,
so I passed the flowers in stone, the sylvan pediments,
alone. It wasn’t I who shot the archduke,
I excuse myself of all crimes of that ilk,
muttering the subway’s obscene graffiti;
I could offer her nothing but the predictable
pale head-scarf of the twilight’s lurid silk.
Well, goodbye, then, I’m sorry I’ve never gone
to the great city that gave Vallejo fever.
Maybe the Seine outshines the East River,
maybe, but near the Metropolitan
a steel tenor pan
dazzlingly practices something from old Vienna,
the scales skittering like minnows across the sea.