Rightfully, and hopefully passionately, there will be a flurry of encomiums for the poet Derek Walcott, who died March 17 in his native island of St. Lucia, which figured so “phosphorous,” to paraphrase one of his favorite words, in his poetry. He was 87.
I defer to those tributes, many from writers, colleagues and students who knew him much better than I, although I had several fleeting moments with him. The last occurred three or four years ago outside a building at New York University where he taught. I reminded him of a distant memory in Trinidad, but it was much too distant for him to recall.
It was unfair for “a nobody” to toss a brief moment to a man of such prominence, but he was gracious, and upon parting he compared my looks to the poet Yusef Komunyakaa, one of his colleagues at the university. He then quickly resumed his stride and vanished into the corridors of the building.
As he walked away, my mind zoomed back to those few days I spent with him in Port of Spain, where he was rehearsing a production of his play “Dream on Monkey Mountain.” I had been invited by the late Wilbert Holder, the play’s lead performer. Walcott always arrived at the theater with a flair, accompanied by a beautiful woman, and after going over his notes, with Wilbert and Tony Hall, they were ready to begin.
As in many of his poems, Walcott moved the performers with easy instructions, and after an hour or so, there was a suspension in which they would chat about the sequences, nibble on some fruit and talk about the next scenes.
I listened while he talked about his expectations. The tangy lilt of his voice stays with me to this day, and it was often summoned during the reading of his poems. That melodious, deliberate cadence can be heard at the Library of Congress website where he read his poems in 1986. Or listen to his Nobel Prize lecture from Dec. 7, 1992, a nearly hour-long speech with a disposition of language and “fragmented memory” of Felicity, a town in Trinidad.
“On a heat-stoned afternoon in Port of Spain,” Walcott recited, “some alley white with glare, with love vine spilling over a fence, palms and a hazed mountain appear around a corner to the evocation of Vaughn or Herbert’s ‘that shady city of palm-trees,’ or to the memory of a Hammond organ from a wooden chapel in Castries, where the congregation sang ‘Jerusalem, the Golden.’”
To hear again Walcott’s voice, his precise intonation, particularly the way he referenced the Castries, reminded me of my only visit to St. Lucia, where we stayed at the Anse Chastanet not too far from Jade Mountain. Whenever I walked the road to town I thought of Walcott, dreaming of bumping into him and resuming a “fragmented moment.”
In his Nobel address, Walcott offered his definition of poetry: “Poetry, which is perfection’s sweat but which must seem as fresh as the raindrops on a statue’s brow, combines the natural and the marmoreal; it conjugates both tenses simultaneously: the past and the present, if the past is the sculpture and the present the beads of dew or rain on the forehead of the past. 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. Poetry is an island that breaks away from the main. The dialects of my archipelago seem as fresh to me as those raindrops on the statue’s forehead, not the sweat made from the classic exertion of frowning marble, but the condensations of a refreshing element, rain and salt.”
Walcott, like Gwendolyn Brooks, was a teenager when he published his first poem. The numerous poems that followed provide a testament, a glorious path of “self-discovery” that he confessed was endless. “I am only one-eighth the writer I might have been had I contained all the fragment of languages of Trinidad,” he said during his Nobel speech.
That “one-eighth,” often as decorous and visually captivating as his watercolors, is more than sufficient and it will take all my remaining years to fully absorb the “sweat of his perfections.”