On Being Asked What Walcott Means to Me

On a radio programme in Jamaica, I was recently asked what Derek Walcott means to me? I answered it with the prepared answers we carry that convince us, perhaps even more than others, that we have understood a thing, and we are in effect done with it, and in responding we are merely raising it from the dead in order to satisfy those who ask. But something about such a question, or the way it is phrased— something about the word ‘means’ strikes me now as exceedingly personal. Something about it already carries the assumption of tenderness, and that all that is left to do, is to quantify it. So one says “He means a lot to me” or one demonstrates that “meaning” by cataloguing the aspects of ‘him’ that make him mean something to one. It is really a strange question or at least a strange one to hear and to answer out loud. Unless of course we give the prepared answer, which is probably intellectually more honest than it is viscerally.


Yet even on an intellectual level, I did not feel that it was something I needed to answer, for I was Vladimir, and Derek Walcott was Derek. He need not mean anything to me. I have been asked on many occasions what his influence has been on me and one of the things about that question that I resented was its presumption— the fact that it assumed that I, being St. Lucian, could not circumambulate Walcott. I assumed within me a haughtiness, which I was careful not to display publicly — it was the type of unearned haughtiness of one who assumes authority on the sole basis of being from or born in a place. I felt that my questioners did not know St. Lucia and understand that Derek Walcott was not the Barre de L’isle of St. Lucian consciousness or aesthetics.

Barre de lisle

In my answers to them, there was a cultivated and too exact certitude both of what the influence was (of Derek on me) and the early period in which that influence waned. I felt that I had come to understand that Walcott’s fight was not my fight and that his politics— the types of questions he was concerned with, his preoccupations, his almost Sisyphean search for a resolution to the intransigent black/white dialectic that he has had to embody— was — as a friend of mine would say— “Not my monkey. Not my circus.” We wanted different things.

I had a well-rehearsed rejoinder to the inexorable question that loomed over me about Walcott’s influence. Yet it was not my answer. It was an answer I had smuggled from the mouths of other St. Lucian poets who would speak of their admiration for his craft while saying little about his vision of Caribbean. They were being honest, but still I think that is only part of the truth. And it is less that they were hiding a deeper truth, than that it was something they had settled with themselves long ago. So I was stealing answers they had earned. Long ago.

Lucian poets

But thinking of it again, this was not the only answer I had gotten. John Robert Lee, who has been a kind of literary godfather to me, has repeatedly said, “ he (Derek) has done his work.” And adds “and he continues to.” The idea of one who has “done his work” has always intrigued me. It has preoccupied me more than any eschatology. At my grandfather’s funeral in October last year, I looked back, trying to evade the sight of the coffin draped in symbolic white cloth, at the packed church.;I listened to a choir singing the songs he had sung to himself or to us; I watched all those people practicing his faith: receiving communion, praying, singing, quoting scripture. As quotidian a reality as this may be for all those embodying it, for me it was a sort of revelation. Somehow, by these proceedings, these mundane and repeatable things, a sense of completion was brought to bear upon the feeling of loss. Death as completion. I don’t think I’ve ever given a thought to the question of whether he has gone to heaven or whether he got what he deserved wherever he is now. Nothing. Between the ex-service men playing their bugles, the lodge brothers at the funeral home in their shimmering esoterica, his family, the whole of Gros Islet, the church congregation—He had done his work. A consensus evidenced more in physical presences than in verbal persuasion.

St. Joseph the Worker

Beyond the desire for a pure sense of loss, I could not care then nor now, how his politics and mine were at odds.  He was independent of me and the passion and lust for iconoclasm and our European-inherited straight-line teleological sense of progress that feeds us so much unearned self-regard and fuels our strong sense of succession and superiority without a thorough understanding of the true incommensurate latitudes of any inheritance. “We” as resolution to their dialectic, we think. His funeral, his completion had nothing to do with me and yet had everything to do with me.

When my father finished his eulogy, which became a kind of biography, it was less the splayed assemblage of affective and euphemistic facts of a person’s life than an almost clinical summary of his movement in the world, like the progress of a protagonist in a video game. And while yes it had to do with the nature of the man, it seemed to provide us with a truth about death or afterlife: we had to look at a man whom we had seen and felt close up all our life, on an almost cosmic level. We had to see his movement in the world, as a rigid fact as the movement of planets. And this recognition, this consciousness of the cosmic co-existing with the moral human world is an abiding and intense aspect of Caribbean people’s sensibility. It explains our respect for power. Not necessarily for those who embody it, but its enactment, its potential for danger, for change, for moving the cosmos— its irrefragability. So when Naipaul tells us in The Middle Passage that Trinidadians admire ‘brains’ in people. (What we call ‘lespwi’ which reclaims the connection between intelligence and spirit— a connection to the original energy/God/Jah/Nzambi Mpungu/Olodumare/Adomankoma etc.), that even a scamp, a thief who exercises his ‘brains’ and pulls off a truly ‘smart’ one on someone would be deplored for it (awareness of the moral) but simultaneously and perhaps in soto voce, the exercise of power (the cosmic), of élan vitale is respected as well. So that our consciousness or understanding or even appreciation of the world is not completely—and need not be completely— encapsulated by a morality. And this is a crucial part of our sensibility.

When I was editing my collection Sounding Ground, the editor had questioned and was a little perturbed by an epigraph I had chosen for a suite of poems on Obeah. It read “Force, whatever its morality has its function and merit and must be recalled (theatred) and placed at man’s disposal.” The quote is from the pre-eminent Caribbean drama theorist, Rawle Gibbons. Yet, in the same paper in which Rawle states this, was the evidence of a similar orientation in our own memory: songs not merely commemorating the enslaved, but also planters notorious for their lust for cruelty and torturing slaves. St. Hilaire Beggorat, Congo Bara. Suzanne Duplessis. Why would or should a people “commemorate” such figures? Or why rather do such villains figure so prominently in our expressions of what we remember? Well because we remember, we know. And we must understand constantly cosmology and that it expands like the galaxies we remain ignorant of, beyond the garden of our morality and orthodoxy. To preserve such a consciousness seems to come easier precisely because we have no empire to defend, no theories of our own superiority to uphold. Something that Post-Copernicus, Post-Enlightenment Europe, with its discovery of Reason, has been unwilling to accept. Workings of the world beyond and concurrent with the one we think we know. That tender awareness of our vulnerability and a simultaneous admiration of the power behind and within all creation.

The man had done his work. Something though about Walcott’s dialectic strikes one as unresolved. Or perhaps Tide-alectic, as Brathwaite would put it. And it was only at a lime with some friends, charged with vodka, that I came to understand Derek’s own resolution to this peculiarly and excruciating New World conundrum. The friends with whom I was liming, were recounting their own encounters with Derek, having both acted under his direction. One of them, recalling the moment in which he resolved his own misgivings about Walcott’s politics, said that it was when, at one rehearsal, Derek remarks “You know, you guys are no worse than any one in the world I could ever work with.” My friend emphasises Derek’s words: “no worse”. Not the polemical “better than” but “no worse”. That Walcott was able to respect their abilities with the full experience of the World out there. Yet Walcott was saying this, I suspect, as much to them as he was to himself. He has a poem of a similar tenor in his last collection White Egrets. This same friend also recalls being asked to read Walcott’s poetry alongside what he remembers as the London philharmonic visiting Trinidad at the time. I immediately thought of the international guests that converge upon St. Lucia for Derek’s birthday, and who are probably back home in St. Lucia right now, and how Derek fills their ears, at all events that he hosts, with St. Lucian music from a live folk band. Struggling with Walcott’s politics before this revelation, the same friend consulted with a mentor, trying to reconcile his misgivings with Derek’s position on issues of blackness and his strong attraction to Derek’s work and he was wisely advised that he was drawn to Walcott’s humanity— the humanity there in the work. The physical juxtaposition of these worlds that have preoccupied and probably even tormented him— whose austerity he has spared us by the beauty of his words— just may be the resolution or what is there in lieu of that clean dialectical synthesis. The ability to accept the ultimate insolubility of the world, of life, and an awareness of the moral imperative to rail against and the belief in our ability or our duty to change it for the better.

That my friend is “no worse” than anyone in any other privileged part of the world, that he can blithely read in his Caribbean accent before the London philharmonic, that those who converge on St. Lucia to celebrate this man so fêted in Europe and who has received Europe’s greatest honours (their skin made delicate by mosquito bites) habituated as I imagine them to the opera or to a soft-voiced society (at least within its own borders), must endure the loud, gravel-voiced chantwèl, blurting out at the volume we are accustomed to, tunes we know, and which our mothers knew better— is to surround himself in old age with humanity, (friends from far places and from near) and let it resolve itself. Not in words; the thing he has mastered. But a kind of negative capability that (stated differently) has always been a part of our experience of the world and it has been a world or condition of existence that Walcott broached and returned to us with profound honesty. A consciousness of the ineffable, inescapable and plain fact of cosmic co-existence. Of what he has had to do in spite of or because of inner conflict (and what I must learn to do). To be. To do his work. To see the fragments



One thought on “On Being Asked What Walcott Means to Me

  1. Pingback: ‘An Unapologetic Independent Thinker’: A Conversation With St. Lucian Poet Vladimir Lucien · Global Voices

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