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75 at 75: Caryl Phillips on Derek Walcott

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A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Caryl Phillips writes about a reading by Derek Walcott. It was recorded live at 92Y on November 18, 1996.

Posted on Mar 31, 2014

Mark_Ford_100x100After the hub-hub of the audience settling down and then a light spattering of applause, we hear Karl Kirchwey’s wonderfully sober and eloquent introduction of the poet. Kirchwey speaks with great precision of “cultural and linguistic fusion” in the work. He rehearses the biographical details—“raised a Methodist on that Catholic island . . . his grandmothers were descended from slaves, his grandfathers were English and Dutch.” And he concludes with a rhetorical flourish that might cause the average poet to drop his manuscript and run fearfully from the building: “Let us welcome this Adam, this Dante, this Homer—Derek Walcott.”

The poet’s reading style has always been dry and stripped bare of theatrical gestures. He strikes a tone and establishes a rhythm and remains loyal to it throughout the length of the individual poem. On this bleak Monday night in November 1996, four years after he received the Nobel Prize in Literature, Walcott is not about to change his lifelong game plan. “I’m going to read from ‘The Bounty,’” he says. “The first poem, which is long, is an elegy for Alix Walcott.” And so the sombre mood is quickly established and Walcott begins to recite this rich, densely allusive, poem about his recently deceased mother with an almost deadpan mellifluousness. It is only in the final section that the performance slips, albeit momentarily. “She took time with her,” he says. But then he quickly adjusts his voice, as one might a crooked tie, and the poem flows insistently toward its conclusion.

For the greater part of his career, Derek Walcott has made a virtue out of the lack of history in the Caribbean. Identifying the region as a place infused with the innocent joy of a tropical Eden has allowed him to play the Adamic role and name the flora and fauna and, when he so chooses, go beyond this and stitch the region into a history that he feels free to import. However, Walcott is too honest not to lament the lack of a physical past in the Caribbean as represented by vistas freighted with historical significance and buildings that suggest hidden, whispered narratives. Very early in Walcott’s reading one senses that at this stage of his life he is beginning now to feel free to explore “real” history elsewhere and, most importantly, comment upon it:

A dark fear of my lengthened shadow, to that I admit,
for this crab to write “Europe” is to see that crouching child
by a dirty canal in Rimbaud, chimneys, and butterflies, old bridges
and the dark smudges of resignation around the coal eyes
of children who all look like Kafka. Treblinka and Auschwitz
passing downriver with the smoke of industrial barges
and the prose of a page from which I brush off the ashes

Midway through the reading he announces, “Three poems about Spain,” which, at their conclusion, segue without warning into the sequence “Manet in Martinique.” It is unusual for Walcott not to guide the listeners through such a transition. Is there a desire to hurry back to safer, and more familiar, landscapes? Perhaps, but at the conclusion of the “Martinique” poems he begins once more to escort us. “The Seagull,” he announces. “A poem about Nina’s return.” And at the conclusion of this poem he pauses for a drink of water, which some in the audience take as a cue to reward the poet with a hesitant ripple of applause. Thereafter, one can almost feel Walcott drawing his body to its full height and reaching down into himself in search of an extra gear of energy. “Italian Eclogues.” A beat. “For Joseph Brodsky.”

Walcott knows full well that history gives weight to literature and rescues language from becoming merely descriptive or decorative. And this question of what to do with history has bothered many writers who, like him, have emerged from a colonial context. For Walcott, the business of importing history into the Caribbean had perhaps run its course with Omeros (1990) and the awarding of the Nobel Prize. Walcott’s subsequent voyaging had taken him, physically, into the world of European history. But listening to the extraordinary tenderness with which he laments the absence of Brodsky, it’s clear that the key to understanding Walcott’s new engagement with European history is rooted in something far more personal than the clumsy, public business of dealing with the Nobel Prize. Affection has opened up this landscape:

. . . I am an eagle bearing you towards Russia,
holding in my claws the acorn of your heart that restores
you past the Black Sea of Publius Naso
to the roots of a beech tree; I am lifted with grief and praise, so
that your speck widens with elation, a dot that soars.

The last two poems return us to familiar territory—the world of the Caribbean with its breadfruit, coconuts, mosquitoes and fireflies, and the classical world of Colonus. And then it’s over. But one is left with the distinct feeling that on this evening the right to celebrate and dismiss Europe is being claimed both as birthright and also as an extension of Walcott’s love for, and gratitude toward, Joseph Brodsky. Having myself had the privilege of seeing the two great poets laughing and joking and talking together, the recording reminds this writer of how important each was for the other—both privately and publicly. And how writers can open each other’s eyes to the world by simply offering up that most precious of gifts—friendship.

Caryl Phillips most recent book is Color Me English: Reflections on Migration and Belonging a collection of essays.