Sunday Arts Section art writer Marsha Pearce and books writer Shivanee Ramlochan each gives her impression of the recently published collection of poems and paintings by Derek Walcott and Peter Doig. Though Walcott is St Lucian, he has significant ties to Trinidad; Doig is Scottish but has lived in T&T since 2002.
Painterly sounds, poetic sights
A review by MARSHA PEARCE
There is a history of a paragone or competition among the arts that includes a debate on painting versus poetry. Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks record his advocacy of seeing and the superiority of painting as a means of imitating the world, in contrast to poetry, which according to da Vinci, relies on sound and an abstraction of the world in word form.
“While poetry extends to the figuration of forms, actions, and place in words, the painter is moved by the real similitudes of forms to counterfeit these forms. Now consider which is a closer examination of man, his name or his similitude?” says da Vinci.
“If the poet acts through the senses by way of the ear, the painter (does so) by way of the more worthy sense of the eye,” he adds.
In the new book Morning, Paramin by poet laureate Derek Walcott and artist Peter Doig, who is described as one of the most renowned living figurative painters, Walcott points to Doig’s work as more than products of sight and as images that do not firmly adhere to a label of figurative art.
Ear and eye are positioned on a level playing field.
In Portrait (Under Water) Doig paints an almost completely submerged man.
Watery, curvilinear strokes in blue and green, snake by his ears and lap his forehead. In the distance, masses of earth rise from the water.
This piece is a point of departure for one of Walcott’s poems entitled Abstraction.
The poet reimagines Doig’s depiction of water as undulating sound waves.
He writes: “We imagine that we can hear what certain painters/heard as they worked: Pollock the cacophony of traffic/O’Keefe the engines of certain lilies, Bearden/cornets muffled in velvet, Peter Doig the brooding, breeding silence of deep bush/the chuckle of a lagoon.”
This particular poem and painting epitomise a relationship of creative expression to the multisensory.
Doig’s works are not only his visual perceptions of Trinidad rendered in recognisable forms but abstractions of what he has heard and felt-painted reactions to a place where, as Walcott observes, the society’s “endeavour is composed in song.”
Walcott hears music in Doig’s painting titled Milky Way. He responds to Doig’s picture of a night sky in cobalt and indigo, stained with a streak of stars that appears like spilt milk.
Walcott shares: “A tenor pan repeating its high note/flowers of brass cornets, maracas stars/an alto sax’s interrupting throat/a burst of rain from drizzling guitars.”
Morning, Paramin brilliantly spotlights the auditory dimension in Doig’s work, exposing the “melody concealed” in the painter’s canvas, while also attending to the poet’s act as not only an appeal to the ear but a practice of image building.
Throughout the book Walcott constructs an intense picture of his experiences of ageing, love and loss; of flora, fauna, friends and family-speckled with a belly-rocking humour.
The reader sees Walcott’s life, hears Doig’s art, smells the mountain air, tastes pain and cringes at the thought of touching a bat’s wax wings.
In this book—where poems and paintings make richly layered connections, where Walcott tells Doig: “my pen and your brushstroke blend in the one metre”—all of the senses are worthy.
Sure and sharp-beaked
A review by SHIVANEE RAMLOCHAN
The young Caribbean poet may find it hard to outrun St Lucian Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott. Whether one has read him or not, his influence is ascribed. Perhaps in similar fashion, the young and worldly artist may not be able to elude Scottish painter Peter Doig, whose White Canoe earned over US $11 million at Sotheby’s in 2007.
Both Doig and Walcott have broken records, earned enviable laurels: what emerges, then, when they turn their attentions to one shared space?
The result, Morning, Paramin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) is not loud or showy: it channels death, sure and sharp-beaked as a waiting corbeau, in both verse and image.
It would be best for Walcott and Doig devotees to leave their preconceptions on this book at the waiting mat of their collective fan-worship.
The poems and their corresponding artworks resist pre-judgment not only with skill, but with playfulness.
Yes, death and all its vultures linger in these poems, but so too do limes at Studio Film Club at the Fernandes Compound, Laventille, where the refrain calls for “a Carib and a half-pack of Anchor.”
Counterpoising the jocular with the melancholic, Walcott’s new poems are simple without being simplistic, and rarely short on a very specific kind of humour.
These are the offerings of an aged, not youthful comedian—one who has taken the measurement of every situation, every societal tableau, and knows the lay of the land a thousand times over.
This might be why Morning, Paramin possesses such artistic self-reliance: it seeks to impress no one.
The intimacy of affection and regard has already been established, and it is between Walcott and Doig themselves, an intimacy they magnanimously share with the reader.
In this sense, the collaboration is a curtain peeled back to allow the sight of a remarkable friendship, a fluid conversation between two creative participants that will endure past their combined mortal span.
It is a small act of mathematics to deduce whether the paintings predate the poems, or vice versa, yet this approach to unlocking the hybrid work’s heart is short-sighted at best, reductive at worst.
There is a natural synchronicity between each pairing of painting and poem, whether the subject is Lapeyrouse Cemetery; Santa Cruz; the sweep of light over Venezuelan hills.
There is a certain affinity to place in the movements of these poems, gliding as they do between Trinidad and the world outside Trinidad—but none with the constancy of desire devoted to Paramin, a place where “the name said by itself could make us laugh as if some deep, deep secret was hidden there.”
For each place signified by Walcott, the visual language of Doig compels the reader there—not scene for scene, nor frame for frame, but with a less common skill than merely repeating in painting what Walcott renders in verse.
In the Paramin pairing, Doig’s Untitled (Jungle Painting) flanks the poem, featuring a shadowed figure emerging from—or retreating into—the leafy bush.
There is no immediate counterpart to this image in the narration of the poem, yet the synapses between Doig and Walcott could not be clearer or more resonant.
This might well be the work’s most vital asset—if it retains any secrets between painter and poet, those secrets do not interfere with the reader’s absorption and ultimate entrancement.
Walcott’s poems are immediate and bristling with life; they are no less alive than when they court the active contemplation of death.
This is verse that shuns abstraction. The threads of meaning are clear, rinsed of artifice and posturing.
“Everything dies from its desire, even the fireflies, even the shuttering eyes of a loved wife.”
In this line from In the Arena, the exposed emotional underbelly of Morning, Paramin is at its clearest.
Life, in all its brightness and capacity for grandeur, outruns us all.
The only temporary antidote, Walcott and Doig declare in this arresting marriage of form, is to make the art one can, and to sustain the conversations that exist between two old friends.
Walcott calls Lapeyrouse its own sustaining city “where headstones multiply like sails on a Sunday … where people think pain or pan is good for the soul.”
We are all, in essence, circling our own Lapeyrouses, and the journeys in between light our footsteps to that final sailing home.
Derek Walcott and Peter Doig
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016