Christians and Buddhists, on the other hand, have been prone to say that another kind of exit, death, is a either a) a rapturous release from life's "vale of tears," or b) a welcome escape from the cyclical nightmare of birth and rebirth. I am not exactly sure how Derek Walcott, St. Lucian-Trinidadian poet, would respond to that rather grim take on the nature of life; but for those of us whom he has left behind, it is not his "transition" we envy, as a prisoner might envy one who got away. We assumed a presence; it is suddenly no longer there. Now we stumble, lose our footing; gone is the symmetry of the web through which we humans imaginatively connect and assure one another that life, after all, is worth the trouble. We miss the person and what his art, his poetry, has given us—not promises of a saccharine paradise above, but his vision of a particular piece of this precious, transient world we live in. Anancy, to refer to a Caribbean spider/trickster spirit, is once more called upon, if he will be so kind, to recreate the world, mend the web again.
Beside these brief comments we include a link at the end of this article to an in memoriam reading over BBC's Newsnight by dub poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson, also a Caribbean person. We urge you to listen: he reads "Love After Love," one of Walcott's poems that puts the sense of loss and recognition a person may face towards the end of one's life in perspective, whether Walcott intended this specifically as such. When searching for that link I was struck by how many non-Caribbean and—yes, let's just say it!—white men read a poem, some piece of Walcott's work, to remember him by. The absence of Caribbean English in those readings, though the commemorations were well meant, sounded at best blandly flat and at worst pompously sacrilegious. (A notably dreadful reading of the same poem by "actor" Tom Hiddleston, in taffy-voiced ignorance, was aired by NPR.) No matter, for example, that Walcott took a canonical Greek myth, Homer's Odyssey, and, as Omeros, made it and other work deeply, tonally and culturally Caribbean. (And clinched his Nobel, I might add.) It was not, as Marley was wont to say, "the King James VERsion"; but that does not mean that its author had no respect for the original. He simply took what we might unfashionably call universals underlying even the canon, and wove them into the music of Caribbean place, time, and language to create his/its original.
We at The Wall clearly have a fondness for translation and work from other places and cultures; but language enjoins us to eschew what, in the last issue, Michael Kandel referred to as linguistic accountancy. Historically, in the Caribbean the languages of Europe have been torqued, have been turned on their heads if need be, sold right down the river to fit the needs of enslaved Africans, others in servitude or at risk from the Master's greedy tantrums—and make no mistake, these languages are not mere "dialect." In fact Kamau Brathwaite, in looking at the mix of European and African languages there, uses the term "nation language" to describe this vital speech—"nation," roughly, in the sense of the enslaveds' ethnic, linguistic and cultural identity. Various Caribbean Englishes resonate with the English of Elizabethan England; the cadences and syntax of Fonbe, Kikongo and a number of other Bantu languages, Yoruba, to name but a few African tongues; the lilt of the Irishmen that Cromwell sent to Jamaica and sold into slavery as well. Quite apart are other languages: Spanish; Papiamento, a language which emerged from Portuguese and African languages; Dutch; French; Arawak and the speech of other indigenous peoples—
In an old, year 2000, review in The New York Review of Books, "Frowsty Fragrance: Review of Caribbeana: An Anthology," Walcott famously took the editors to task for publishing white European colonials' stilted language as the region's founding literature rather than the work of human cattle egrets pecking off ticks from the backside of the Caribbean. The anthology exemplifies an ill-informed choice which ignored the work of those who lived and, often literally, slaved under their supervision. "Frowsty"—i.e., slang for bad or stale-smelling—was the perfect adjective to describe a suspect and foul "literature." For Caribbean languages do not replicate the old maps we used to see, with the different colored countries indicating what landmass belonged to, or was seized by, whom. Caribbean languages are a map of time as well as space: who was here, who arrived here, who went there, when, even how. Add to time and space the tones of many tongues, and, you have a particular music which has made Caribbean English one of the most beautiful Englishes on the planet. Walcott could no more have shed that English than cut off an arm. In short, language is key; and Massa was tone-deaf.
I will hover very briefly over Omeros which, if nothing else of Walcott's, should figure on your reading list. Here, besides an acute awareness of language, one must note that on almost any Caribbean island you are never far from the sea. Close enough, and away from its urban centers, one lives with its susserations, its lullabies, its violent, pounding rages. Not unlike on Greek islands, life on Caribbean ones demands that, in one form or another, one makes some kind of agreement with those waters. So, too, the sea is one of the absolutely essential elements in Homer's work: beyond the warriors' "War Music," as Christopher Logue titled his translation of Homer's Iliad, the essence of the Odyssey which so many readers seem to overlook is that these men, homesick and eager to return, are not just battle-weary men taking advantage of the best ride back; they are men of the sea. The salinity of their blood is that of ancient oceans; and that, too, is the nature of the Caribbean person. Walcott finds this elemental connection of man and sea in his ordinary fishermen, which he recasts as classic figures. Consider the following: in contemplating the "murder" of chopping down a cedar to make a canoe, Philoctete of Omeros places us immediately on that unique junction of land and Caribbean sea:
"This is how, one sunrise, we cut down them canoes."
Philoctete smiles for the tourists, who try taking
his soul with their cameras. "Once wind bring the news
to the laurier-cannelles, their leaves start shaking
the minute the axe of sunlight hit the cedars,
because they could see the axes in our own eyes.
Wind lift the ferns. They sound like the sea that feed us
fisherman all our life, and the ferns nodded 'Yes,
the trees have to die.' So, fist jam in our jacket,
cause the heights was cold and our breath making feathers
like the mist, we pass the rum. When it came back, it
give us the spirit to turn into murderers."
- Chapter 1, I, Omeros
Walcott's are quite ordinary men, not the elite of classical Greece, and he goes right to the core of their humanity without condescension or gush. Nor does Walcott obscure the impact of tourism, something that is often not the best for the islands and its people. Unlike Bajan Kamau Brathwaite, who rightly bemoaned that in Barbados "hotels are squatting on my metaphors," Walcott wrenches metaphors, like the allusion to stealing souls via camera, from that predatory industry. And if you will remember, the Philoctete of Greek myth had a wound that never healed: in Omeros, consider how that, of all things, becomes a tourist attraction:
For some extra silver, under a sea-almond,
he shows them a scar made by a rusted anchor,
rolling up one trouser-leg up with the rising moan
of a conch. It has puckered like the corolla
of a sea-urchin. He does not explain its cure.
"It have some things"—he smiles—"worth more than a dollar."
In short, Walcott's work steps aside and lets us see and hear, feel perhaps, the beauty and poignancy that is inherent in its people and their home. What Walcott did was use his own—and the ordinary Caribbean person's—language to honor its poetry, its music, and let that take over. In a sense, he just took notes.
And he will be sorely missed.
"Love after Love" read by Linton Kwesi Johnson
Some key obits:
The St. Lucia News online
The Sunday Herald (Scotland)
The Guardian (Trinidad and Tobago)
(Walcott also wrote plays, essays, and more. Wikipedia actually has a very good and comprehensive list.)
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