Derek Walcott, stirring poet of the Caribbean, Nobel Laureate and sexual harasser. If we are not to dance gingerly around the mulberry bush, this is what we would take on, head on. It is the least we can do in Walcott’s memory and for poetry’s sake – to be neither coy nor righteous, neither misogynist nor its abettor, neither purist nor moralist nor an aestheticist with blinkers.
Life happens, in all kinds of uplifting and abhorrent ways. And poems happen, great memorable poems, despite them, or sometimes – moralists being loath to allow this thought to sidle in through the gates – because of them. We may try, perhaps, to find a path other than condoning or condemning or banishing a poet from our self-righteous republic: a third path that is not an escape but a facing up to and a facing-off with, the poet as well as his poetry.
“My veins bud, and I am so
full of poems, a wastebasket of black wire”
So writes Walcott in a late poem I have re-read on so many black days in recent years, “In the Village”. The poem locates itself in New York’s Greenwich, which is the ultimate urban village, in some ways containing the worst and best of the known contemporary western world in miniature, and so is the poem, his life, our lives, expanded to a lyrical nothingness.
“Who has removed the typewriter from my desk,
so that I am a musician without his piano
with emptiness ahead as clear and grotesque
as another spring?”
This is what he asks, voicing for us our deepest anxiety, that of being stripped of the tools to be heard. In the depth and richness of life, the spectre of emptiness hangs over us and haunts our waking, working hours. “No poems. No birds.” Walcott says in conclusion, and we must bow our heads to such melancholy, such power.
There is fascination and allure in the sheer brutal wrenching apart of beauty into nothingness – and Walcott knew it, did it, wrote it, like not too many in his century have done. We would be hypocrites if we cringed at the unpalatable in life. How many of us can claim to always tread the honourable narrow track of virtue – and how many walking that path can lay claim, then, to such singular creations of terror and loveliness? We may or may not forgive Walcott his trespasses – that must be realised by our personal im/moral compasses, whichever direction they may point us toward – but we must still read him or be the poorer for it.
When the Nobel was won
I was a graduate student at Boston University when Walcott was teaching in its Creative Writing Program, housed in the same building that the English department occupied, sibling programmes that they were. I can still recall clearly the morning when the quiet brownstone at 236 Bay State Road overlooking the River Charles began ringing with footsteps and voices unknown to it, of people feverishly wielding cameras and notepads and pens, even while everyone else in the building tried to go about their academic business nonchalantly, as if it were every day that a colleague or a teacher won a Nobel.
It was the day, of course, that Walcott won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. I did not know him as a teacher, never having taken a Creative Writing course, but of course we all knew Derek “Omeros” Walcott was in our midst, creator of a dense, marvellous poem in seven books with 64 “chapters” possibly written during the time the poet was quietly passing us on the wooden stairs day after day, while we all went to classes and seminars and libraries and walked with cheap margarita pizzas by the sparkling river on sunny afternoons, how amazing was that.
Published in 1990, Omeros was a literary phenomenon, and those who had not read any Walcott earlier could no longer not know the islandista from St Lucia in the Caribbean who brought to words on bright white pages skintingling nervewracking history and myth, sorrow and soul-weariness and great grand fleeting ecstasies, in short quick snatches of time and memory.
of rotting breadfruit from the Battle of the Saints,
the asterisks of bulletholes in the brick walls
of the redoubt. I lived there with every sense.
I smelt with my eyes, I could see with my nostrils.”
Walcott was teeming with ways of seeing and listening and smelling in Omeros. It is a wild profanation of senses that was his legacy from the sea-buffeted island that he came from and its long and onerous pasts that he carried with him to the posh American campuses he ended up in, and sometimes left in ignominy too. It is a consolation to his soul that he died on his island of St Lucia, returning to the earth that gave him his roots and his words. The burden of his guilt was not for his roving fingers and eyes on women – those he defended or airily acknowledged, and so garnered many bitter critics, often deserved – but for his abandonment of the land of his ancestors to milk it for his poetry, as well as the great love he bore it, shattered into razor-edged pieces of remembrance and longing:
“I watched the afternoon sea. Didn’t I want the poor
to stay in the same light so that I could transfix
them in amber, the afterglow of an empire,
preferring a shed of palm-thatch with tilted sticks
to that blue bus-stop? Didn’t I prefer a road
from which tracks climbed into the thickening syntax
of colonial travellers, the measured prose I read
as a schoolboy? That cove, with its brown shallows
there, Praslin? That heron? Had they waited for me
to develop my craft? Why hallow that pretence
of preserving what they left, the hypocrisy
of loving them from hotels, a biscuit-tin fence
smothered in love-vines, scenes to which I was attached
as blindly as Plunkett with his remorseful research?
Art is History’s nostalgia, it prefers a thatched
roof to a concrete factory, and the huge church— “Omeros”, Chapter XLV, II
above a bleached village.”
How the poetry was made
Walcott mined History’s nostalgia with panache and passion, and wrung it into Art that exhibited proudly its bruises like the smudges of pain and tearstain on old creased cheeks. In what is perhaps the best-loved part of his Nobel acceptance speech, he said, “Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars”, ruminating on the fragments that we attempt to piece together again of what is precious and broken, and the scars that remain, that no love is able to smooth over altogether.
He went on to pronounce, “And this is the exact process of the making of poetry…” Walcott too, like so many poets of the twentieth century obsessively did, wrestled continually with the meaning and method of creating art, making of it a deeply personal quest that was political in the wellsprings of its enactment: “There is the buried language and there is the individual vocabulary, and the process of poetry is one of excavation and of self-discovery. Tonally the individual voice is a dialect; it shapes its own accent, its own vocabulary and melody in defiance of an imperial concept of language, the language of Ozymandias, libraries and dictionaries, law courts and critics, and churches, universities, political dogma, the diction of institutions.”
If TS Eliot was the poet of the fragments that he shored against his ruin, emblematic of the collapse of western civilisation after the first great war, Walcott fashioned himself as the poet of the process of such fragmentation, soaking in lives on the other side of empire and white privilege, and pushed himself to break and meld together the object of beauty and memory and history, first holding up broken pieces to the light of scrutiny and engagement, and then after glueing, the restored artifact of the imagination with its ugly cracks on display.
And so he said, “Poetry is an island that breaks away from the main.” He was, after all, known as the poet of exile, and his poetry thrives on distances between the many places one calls home. He wished his readers to immerse themselves in those cracks – distances, liminalities – as much as in the whole, perhaps more in the cracks than in the whole.
There was never any doubt, also, that Walcott was the poet of experience; islandistas never savoured or hoarded innocence as the price for it was always too high, and its iridescence too far away and long ago. The luminous power of his words lay in stories wedged into “the old man’s book”, an image at the centre of his long poetic narrative, The Prodigal, severely panned by literary critics when it appeared in 2005. It may be a fitting irony if one takes from Walcott’s apparently failed book of poems fragments for building his epitaph, such as it may be, irrepressible, saturnalian, inchoate:
“Desire and disease commingling,
commingling, the white hair and the white page…
Look at it any way you like, it’s an old man’s book
whenever you write it, whenever it comes out,
the age in your armpits in the pleats of your crotch,
the faded perfumes of cherished conversations,
and the toilets gurgling its eclogues, resurrecting names
in its hoarse swivelling into an echo after.
This is the music of memory, water.”
Walcott was no angel, and he leaves us with not even one of that sweet breed to sing us to our sleep or new awakenings. Instead, he offers us wounds:
“The day, with all its pain ahead, is yours.
The ceaseless creasing of the morning sea,
the fluttering gamboge cedar leaves allegro,
the rods of the yawning branches trolling the breeze,
the rusted meadows, the wind-whitened grass,
the coos of the stone-colored ground doves on the road,
the echo of benediction on a house –
its rooms of pain, its verandah of remorse
when joy lanced through its open-hearted doors
like a hummingbird out to the garden and pool
in which the sky has fallen. These are all yours,
and pain has made them brighter as absence does
after a death, as the light heals the grass.
And the twig-brown lizard scuttles up its branch
like fingers on the struts of a guitar.”
The day, with all its pain ahead, is ours, made brighter by the absence of words as it does after speech falls silent or the empty page stares back at us blankly. Here then is a poet’s testament to the age he has now faded out of and that we hang limply from, between sundry “betrayals of falling suns”.
Brinda Bose teaches English literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.