In Praise of Derek Walcott’s Epic of the Americas

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Julian Lucas for the New York Times

I found Derek Walcott’s “Omeros” in the stacks of the Montclair Book Center in New Jersey: a frail blue paperback with a seahorse on the cover and the previous owner’s phone number across the flyleaf’s edge. It was literary flotsam, a poem I hadn’t heard of and couldn’t place in time or tradition. Here were the names of Homer — Hector, Helen, Philoctete, Achille — but also Voodoo deities and lines from “Buffalo Soldier,” ghosts of Troy but also camera-wielding tourists and fishermen revving chain saws as they prepared to fell the ancient trees (those last silent “gods” of a pre-Columbian past) on a forested volcanic slope. The stanzas moved to Dante’s terza rima, but the poem began in patois: “This is how, one sunrise, we cut down them canoes.”

The book followed me everywhere. A chronicle of modern St. Lucia, it was also an epic of the New World, weaving from its characters’ encounters with history a deeper, vaster story on a sunken loom. On walks down the Lenape Trail near my childhood home in New Jersey, I listened for the lost Indian languages Walcott heard in the woodcutters’ pyre: “a resinous bonfire that turned the leaves brown/ with curling tongues, then ash, and their language was lost.” When the fisherman Hector battled a hurricane in his canoe, I read along in the rain under a bus shelter in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, surrounded by Caribbean storefronts — a diaspora shipwrecked in the same storms of history that Walcott’s epic traced.

A year later, my reading of “Omeros” took me to Benin, Togo and Senegal, where I researched the remembrance of slavery in the old ports of the Atlantic trade. In Dakar, standing on a cliffside near the corniche, I watched the ocean traversed by my ancestors, Walcott’s verse a blessing on their trials: “But they crossed, they survived./ There is the epical splendor. … the grace born from subtraction as the hold’s iron door/ rolled over their eyes.” I walked so close to the edge that a student on his lunch break tapped my shoulder and said, “You better not fall in.”

But I already had, not only into Atlantic history but also into Caribbean literature, and poetry from the Négritude movement to W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot. Because of Walcott I read Jean Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea” and Aimé Césaire’s “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land,” Alejo Carpentier’s “The Kingdom of This World” and Patrick Chamoiseau’s “Texaco.” I reread “The Tempest” and lyrics from two Bobs (Marley and Lowell), then landed back in the novels, and later the classroom, of Jamaica Kincaid.

The last place “Omeros” took me was to St. Lucia, where just over a year before Walcott died I attended the Nobel Laureate Week celebrations for his 86th birthday. During a catamaran ride around the island, while dozens of guests danced and drank on deck, the poet sat anchored in his wheelchair like Odysseus tied to the mast. His eyes read the passing landscape like a poem in progress: checking the scansion of the shoreline, firming the mountains’ metaphors, making sure there was nothing he had missed.

If you want to explore Walcott’s poetry, these five works are a good place to begin.

MIDSUMMER I (‘MIDSUMMER,’ 1984)

Begin with this window-seat epiphany from the poet in flight, sky liner notes rivaled only by James Merrill’s “A Downward Look” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “Night City.” Walcott approaches Trinidad in a plane recast as a pond’s gliding insect: “The jet like a silverfish bores through volumes of cloud.” From this altitude, all his major themes appear in dioramic miniature: the Odyssean homecoming, this contiguity between language and landscape (“sharp exclamations of whitewashed minarets”), and the Caribbean’s existence beyond official histories. Landing is loveliest — each successive layer of the rematerializing world yields a “shelving sense of home.”

THE SEA IS HISTORY (‘THE STAR-APPLE KINGDOM, 1979)

The orator Demosthenes liked to practice speaking on the seashore, voice raised in challenge to the roaring surf. The ocean is an ancient argument, and here Walcott makes it answer a contemptuous dismissal of the islands’ history. “Where are your battles, your monuments, martyrs?” asks the voice of a metropolitan skeptic — and the poet’s strident answer is “the sea.” Underwater, Caribbean pasts fuse with biblical scenes and the rhythms of marine life, evoking both classical underworlds and the sunken island afterlife of Haitian Voodoo. Bones from the drowned of the Middle Passage are reborn as a living Book of Exodus: “mosaics/ mantled by the benediction of the shark’s shadow.”

LOVE AFTER LOVE (‘SEA GRAPES,’ 1976)

If Walcott had a pop song, “Love After Love” would be it. Uncharacteristically free of proper nouns (no Latinate tropical flowers or seaside villages with soft Creole names), it is a simple, tender promise of healing after heartbreak:

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror.

A celebration of return from love’s tempestuous self-exile, the poem’s interior landfall is ultimately inseparable from Walcott’s grander voyages. Concentrically nested in all his circumnavigations of history are the wanderings and homecomings of the individual heart.

THE ANTILLES: FRAGMENTS OF EPIC MEMORY (1992)

Evoking a Trinidadian performance of the Hindu epic “The Ramayana,” Walcott begins his 1992 Nobel Lecture by celebrating the hybrid beauty of Caribbean civilization. The speech is not only a paean to a region but a defense of the islands often dismissed (even by V. S. Naipaul, Walcott’s nemesis) as shapeless derivations of those African, Asian and European “originals” from which its people retain only shards. But it is in this “gathering of broken pieces” that Walcott finds the archipelago’s poetry: “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.”

ANOTHER LIFE’ (1973)

Rare is the artist lucky enough to grow up with his country. “For no one had yet written of this landscape/ that it was possible,” says Walcott in this luminous autobiography, a verse chronicle of his artistic apprenticeship during the twilight of colonialism and the early years of St. Lucia’s independence. The book’s highlight is Walcott’s young friendship with the painter Dunstan St. Omer (Gregorias in the poem), companion and competitor in his quest to immortalize the island. Among the most moving tributes to home in poetry, “Another Life” makes it clear why St. Lucia gave Derek Walcott a state funeral — his coffin swathed in the national flag designed by St. Omer.

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