In his 1962 poem, “A Far Cry from Africa,” Derek Walcott articulated something of the thesis statement for his sixty-year career:
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
In poem after poem, play after play, volume after volume, Walcott worked through what it meant to speak Shakespeare’s language in the cadences of Saint Lucia. The problem, as he knew from the beginning, was not merely personal. Walcott’s struggle was with colonialism as a central fact of history, not only on his native island but also throughout those parts of the world dismissed as “third,” “developing,” or otherwise inferior to Europe and the U.S.—homelands of the colonizers.
No. Wait a minute. That’s the opening of a thousand essays on Walcott, the key to a hundred obituaries. I’ve not only read that paragraph before, I’m pretty sure I’ve written it before. Why is it that my typing fingers fall into that well-worn groove at this moment, a day after we all learned that Walcott was dead? Because, I suppose, it sounds better to repeat such familiar insights than it does simply to wail our heartbreak. I can’t tell you how it hurt to type “Walcott” and “dead” on either side of a form of the verb “to be.”
Let me start again.
A few years ago, Walcott and Seamus Heaney appeared together at the AWP Conference in Boston. Roseanna Warren interviewed the two Nobel laureates and the event was a treat for anyone who cared about poetry. At one moment (I wish I could remember what question he was responding to), Walcott began to talk about the career of the poet. He stopped himself and revised, saying that the word “career” was all wrong, that it was a mistake to think of a poet’s life and writing in such terms. The proper word, the proper concept, Walcott said, was “vocation.” The life of the poet is the work of poetry (one meaning of “vocation”), and it was lived according to one’s calling to the craft (another meaning of the word). This was not, I think, to say that a poet shouldn’t worry about getting the work out into the world, pursuing publication and audience in ways that might seem “careerist.” But it did seem intended to emphasize the work, to pick up and echo a note that sounds throughout Walcott’s own oeuvre just as powerfully as the cultural self-division to which he returned over and over.
You hear that note in a poem like “Hotel Normandie Pool,” published in Walcott’s 1981 volume, The Fortunate Traveler. The poet narrates his New Year’s Day, settling in “for work and coffee” at a poolside table. Everything is figured in literary terms: even the festivities of the night before are recalled as “like the great chapter in some Russian novel.” The poet’s experience is a poet’s experience, mediated through the enabling scrims and lenses of literature; the continuity across the poem’s stanzas is the image of the poet working, moving the pen across the paper, trying with each line to clarify, to drive away the mists and clouds so that reflections are accurate. No wonder he is visited by the shade of Ovid. In a revision of T.S. Eliot’s confrontation with the “familiar compound ghost” in “Little Gidding,” Walcott’s speaker is not comforted but is instead confirmed and encouraged by his predecessor. When Walcott laments the corruption of language that he sees in postcolonial politics, Ovid says, Get back to work. Having suffered his own exile, the Roman poet claims his (and poetry’s) means of recompense and revenge:
“no bench would tell my shadow ‘Here’s your place’;
bridges, canals, willow-fanned waterways
turned from my parting gaze like an insult,
till, on a tablet smooth as the pool’s skin,
I made reflections that, in many ways,
were even stronger than their origin.”
The language of the tribe might not be susceptible to purifying, but if one is called to it the work goes on. Walcott was called to it. You can hear it in his handling of pentameter, in the way he often makes his rhymes almost inaudible, in his unwillingness to let an image or allusion go until he had wrung from it all the meaning it could bring to his hard questioning of the world.
Sure, yes, of course. Practice and polish and deftness and dexterity. The man could turn a beautiful line. That gets some of the beauty of his work, the seriousness with which he took it, but does my heart break like this just because another fine craftsman is gone? And am I even getting what he meant by the distinction between “career” and “vocation”?
I’ll try again.
The one signed Walcott volume I own is a paperback copy of The Arkansas Testament. I got the autograph when Walcott read at Smith in 2003. Over dinner, the poet admitted that he hadn’t settled on what he would read. I mentioned my particular love for the title poem of that book. To my surprise, when Walcott took the stage in Weinstein Auditorium an hour later, he devoted his reading to that one long poem. In that book, dedicated to Seamus Heaney (another voice whose loss I’m still mourning), and in the twenty-four sixteen-line stanzas of its title poem (dedicated to Michael Harper, another voice whose loss I still can’t get my head around), Walcott performs the kind of poetic act that makes him stand out for me, that makes the silencing of his voice hurt in a particularly deep way.
The poem recounts a visit to Fayetteville, Arkansas, and most of it focuses on the poet’s early-morning walk to a café in search of his “fix,” a couple of cups to address his “5 a.m. caffeine addiction.” Moving through a dawn that is “fading the houses / to an even Confederate grey,” the speaker situates himself in American history, affronted by—and a continuing danger to—his presence. “I waited for a while by the grass / of a urinous wall, “he writes, “to let / the revolving red eye on top / of a cruising police car pass.” Why such caution? Because “This, after all, was the South,” a landscape still suffused with racialized violence, a site analogous, for the world-traveling Walcott, to South Africa in its insistent, codified, and recalcitrant apartheid, a place where “the Aryan light is upheld” even in the aftermath of “the recently repealed law / that any black out after curfew / could be shot dead.” Like Harper, Walcott pulls no punches about the awfulness of an America during “darker years” characterized by “more hatred, more racial rage.” He brings vocation and the burdens of black citizenship together in a ringing half-stanza near the end of the poem:
Can I swear to uphold my art
that I share with them too, or worse,
pretend that all is past and curse
from the picket lines of my verse
the concept of Apartheid?
The shadow bends to the will
as our oaths of allegiance bend
to the state What we know of evil
is that it will never end.
But, like Heaney, Walcott also refuses to let himself off any ethical or political hooks even as he ponders and pursues the value of aesthetic commitment. Addressing, as Auden does, the divine (whose presence has been in the background throughout the poem in references to crosses and crucifixion) as “Sir,” Walcott stunningly breaks the poem’s form, continuing a sentence across the boundary of a numbered stanza, to emphasize a moment of vocational crisis:
There are things that my craft cannot
wield, and one is power;
and though only old age earns the
right to an abstract noun
this, Sir, is my Office,
my Arkansas Testament,
my two cupfuls of Cowardice,
my sure, unshaven Salvation,
my people’s predicament.
Something in the spirit of the Republic, represented by its flag, must, he concludes, “heal the stripes and the scars,” but poetry and poet are both limited in their capacities to effect this healing, are able only to limn the history, violence, suffering, indignity and indignation.
Just maybe, now, I’m getting closer to Walcott’s true importance as I understand it. That oft-cited early passage from “A Far Cry from Africa” points not only to a thematic burden (in the musical sense) sounded with variations over the course of his career but also to an ethical burden (in the sense of a heavy load to be borne) that shaped the course of his vocation. Moments of self-castigation abound in his work, often intertwined with his most trenchant moments of cultural or historical critique.
In the poem of Walcott’s about which I have written the most, his amazing 1990 epic, Omeros, the poet stages several such episodes. Early on, accompanied by the ghost of his father, Walcott’s narrator visits the docks of Castries, where Warwick shows him women carrying coal to load the holds of ships. Here, rather than in global travel or the pages of the English literary tradition, is the foundation of your vocation:
Kneel to your load, then balance your staggering feet
and walk up that coal ladder as they do in time,
one bare foot after the next in ancestral rhyme.
Later, another character with ties to the poet, Achille, receives a rebuke that reverberates through Walcott’s work. Suffering sunstroke, Achille has a dream or vision in which he walks across the bottom of the Atlantic and back in time, traveling from Saint Lucia to Africa and from the present to the moment of his ancestors’ enslavement. Meeting his ancestor, Afolabe, Achille is quizzed about the meaning of his name. His ignorance of its meaning stands for the entire enforced forgetting of his heritage:
if you’re content with not knowing what our names mean,
then I am not Afolabe, your father, and you look through
my body as the light looks through a leaf. I am not here
or a shadow. And you, nameless son, are only the ghost
of a name.
Back on the island, led by a talking bust of Homer during a purgatorial descent into the volcano Soufrière, the Narrator endures the most powerful scolding, a condemnation for his failure of poetic vision and voice under the awful demands of history. A revenant in this Underworld, a figure with “ice-matted head” and a “fist of ice,” holds the Narrator, who cannot speak no matter how he tries to cry out “its name.” “You tried to render / their lives as you could,” this embodied spirit says, “but that is never enough; / now in the sulphur’s stench ask yourself this question, // whether a love of poverty helped you / to use other eyes, like those of that sightless stone?” Did the tradition that enabled you in the construction of those feet and lines and rhymes also, and at the same time, blind you to the suffering it was your burden to commemorate?
The most powerful poets are not only those who forge compelling voices through their rigorous attention to craft and who turn their hard-won poetic vision on history’s refusal to apologize. The most important poets are those who, having achieved these first two aims, turn their acute attention to themselves and scrutinize their very medium for its complicities. They refuse to let poetry itself escape the histories that condition its making. Not many are up to that task, even if they are capable of it. Walcott was.
Yet Walcott also demonstrated poetry’s power to transform the givens of history, and thereby the possibilities for cultural healing, especially if the gifts of metaphor are grounded in the needs of those whom history hurt. Omeros offers an example of this, too, among its many moments of self-doubt, and it’s a good moment to end on.
Another islander, Philoctete, like his classical namesake suffers from a leg wound that won’t heal. Ma Kilman, the local obeah woman, concocts a cure. She gathers a vital plant from the mountainside, leaving the accouterments of Christianity and European “civilization” so that she can follow the ants to this plant sprung from an African seed. She brews the plant in a bath for Philoctete, and when he immerses himself in this bath, his wound is healed. Crucially, the vessel Ma Kilman uses is a cauldron left from the island’s sugar industry, a metonym for the history of exploitation—through colonialism and slavery—that might be implicated by the suppurating wound. Though erasing the “stripes and scars” of history is impossible, in the magical acts of poetic synthesis and transformation, acts exemplified by Walcott’s own work over the decades, it is possible to find moments of release, relief, and tender, temporary pleasure.
For such moments, we must be grateful to Derek Walcott. May he rest in peace.
Michael Thurston is the MR Reviews Editor and the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College.