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Growing Up Under Walcott

Image: By Jorge Mejía peralta [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Words: Vladimir Lucien
                                                           

As a first form student at St. Mary’s College, the first play I acted in — a minor role — was Derek’s Malcochon or Six in the Rain, heavily influenced by the Japanese film (and notice the rhyme between the two titles) Rashomon. My performance in the little role as Sonson, the insolent nephew of an “Uncle”, had evidently captivated the audience. After the performance, Derek and Sigrid, took me outside of the cultural centre, and Sigrid took pictures of me with Derek. At the time, it had not meant much to me, as Derek Walcott was a name that seemed to live permanently in the air — and like air, you do not really notice it, despite how vital it is. Plus, I was young. I had not known his work beyond the plays we did in the drama club at SMC, and even as I acted in the play, I did not give much thought to matters beyond my role — which was a source of much anxiety. My father, however, who was also present on that day, had long read Walcott, and been reciting Walcott to us in the house. I remember “As John to Patmos” most, but even while I enjoyed these recitals that seemed to make the air in the house ring with light, I did not give much attention to the words of the poem. Who was John anyway? Or — for that matter — Patmos? (Years later Daddy would tell me of his brief encounter showing Derek his poems. This ended with Derek asking him about the rhythm. Telling him: “If there is no rhythm, there is no God.”)
            Daddy was pleased with Derek’s praise for my performance — a performance he had worked with me on late nights in the kitchen. And it was Daddy who, days later, suggested that I call Derek’s house to ask for a copy of the pictures taken. I may have called at a bad time, or too early or something, but the reply on the other end of the line was rude, and in a grunting and grumpy voice. “Irascible” maybe — as one critic described the Grand Old Man, a word that made sense to me more in its very sound than its meaning. It sounds like both an irritation and its response. I do not remember feeling particularly hurt by this encounter, nor as if some great stone had been placed upon my world. Daddy, however, may have been more offended.

                                                            ***

As grey and difficult to see now as the newspaper I saw it in. Words uttered bitterly about the country, my country — of which I was taught to be proud — St. Lucia or maybe how it was being run. I cannot now remember which paper it was, or what the subject matter was, but that it was the same tone — which I did not however connect to my rude phone-response — of “irascible”. An impassioned and “irascible” rant. Another word that sounds like the voice I heard on the line that long-time-ago. All I remember was feeling myself tighten into defensiveness, about St. Lucia, about that country of which I was taught to be proud. That country of two Nobel laureates.

                                                            ***

For my A levels, we are doing Selected Poems by Derek Walcott, edited by Wayne Brown. For a whole year my eyes follow a girl with the most beautifully sculpted face — a finely wrought jaw that produced a jut in her lower lip that seemed to make something elegant of her. Not a girl I was attracted to, or had strong intentions of courting as I think of it now, but as a kind of sculpture, a place where the marks, or style of Creation were visible. Where Creation began to smile to itself and try things, new things with the faces it sculpted. I read it as (or wanted it to be) infatuation at the time. Like Walcott’s beauty, in “The Light of the World”. I had infused her with other loves and impulses of mine. I had forced onto her the weight of symbol for so many interwoven needs. In class, Kendel Hippolyte is doing Walcott’s poetry with us — ‘A Careful Passion’ is the poem:

“All is exhilaration on the eve,

Especially, when the self-seeking heart

So desperate for some mirror to believe

Finds in strange eyes the old original curse.

So cha cha cha, begin the long goodbyes,

Leave the half-tasted sorrows of each pledge,

As the salt wind brings brightness to her eyes,

At a small table by the water’s edge.”

The poem spoke to what I was feeling. But strangely, I made little connection between this Walcott and the Walcott of the, by then, five or six plays of his I had acted in at Secondary school, nor the Walcott of the photograph and phone call and “irascible”… I had not connected the dots. I had not connected the dots of the man. I had not given the man to himself.

                                                            ***

By the time I begin University, I have been reading him. Have written a million derivative poems. Inherited him, effortlessly as air. On a term paper, I argue with one professor who claimed that Walcott had said that he would’ve been a better writer had he been born in Trinidad — or at least that is what I thought he said. I reminded him of Walcott’s pronouncement: “Moin c’est gens Ste. Lucie, C’est la moin sorti. Is there that I born” (I am St. Lucian. It is where I come from. That is where I was born). The professor calmly refers me to Walcott’s little-known essay On Choosing Port of Spain. And strangely, in it, I find myself. My love-annoyance relationship with Trinidad, but a love-annoyance (and the boldness to express this love-annoyance) that can only come from a sense of belonging, of being claimed by the place — as Walcott put it — as its son. Slowly I started drawing the parallels between me, a young aspiring poet, and Walcott — with the hope that his eventual destiny, may somehow mirror mine…

1) Both born and raised in St. Lucia
2) Both spent time in Trinidad
3) Both engaged with Literature and Theatre
4) Both thinking they would die before turning thirty

                                                            ***

My first collection of poetry sent to Peepal Tree Press, was rejected — because it was too derivative of Walcott (and — if that is even possible — Tony McNeill). Around the time of Derek’s sister Pam’s death, my mentor, John Robert Lee offers to take some of my work to him. I deliver the work to Robert. It disappears into the void. Another rejection. By the time Sounding Ground is published, I had convinced myself that I had moved on from Walcott. I had actively stopped reading him. And in my final year of UWI, I arrived at the crossroads of a course entitled Seminars in West Indian Literature II where I was to choose between Walcott and Brathwaite. Having done Walcott in several courses already during my three years at UWI, I chose to brave Brathwaite. I was over Derek.
                                                            ***
When Sounding Ground is published, Robert suggests I give him a signed copy to deliver to the old man. I hesitate. I give it to Robert. It disappears into the void.

                                                            ***

When Sounding Ground wins the OCM Bocas prize for Caribbean Literature in 2015, Derek, who is being honoured by Bocas, is in the front row. Here we are, long beyond my lists of parallels. I have won a prize that Derek was the first winner of. When I come off the stage after the announcement, he makes some Derek-joke about the cheque being sent to him. Later, he makes a comment about how beautiful my wife was, asking how I ended up with her.

                                                            ***

Before the Bocas win I had given Derek’s play O Starry Starry Night a bad review in the Trinidad Guardian, but after this and the Bocas win I began getting invitations to the many gatherings I had only heard about, of Derek and his friends from foreign, reading and joking and laughing at Jambe de Bois, a quaint restaurant near the water at Pigeon Island, or Cas-en-Bas beach, or his house. I was even invited to a recorded round table in his art studio. I still felt that I had gotten over Derek and I was dealing with him now, not as equals but as someone independent of him, someone who had transcended some filial need. He had not mentored me. I had mentored myself, with help along the way from other writers. I was not his child.

                                                            ***

After several gatherings I had come to know a now old, but tender man who cried often — cried mostly about things that were beautiful, and being beautiful, were tragic. It was a sense of the beautiful thing being isolated in the eye, surrounded by the passing world, that sense of sic transit gloria mundi juxtaposed against such beauty deserving of endurance, of eternity, there, surrounded by time and the onset of decay, like the sea surrounds “Bird-rock”, which Derek can see from his house. And it is he who bears that sadness more, as one who wants to do the impossible. Make that beautiful thing last. Because beauty is itself a small island, endangered, surrounded by the rougher-hewn world.
 

                                                            ***

                                                Soft, tender man. old man. crying. irascible. Man.

                                                            ***

Outside the cathedral, at Dunstan St. Omer’s funeral, I stand as I always do, at a guarded distance from Derek. Not wanting to venture too close, be too familiar. Like a stepchild. But watching. Observing the man. Observing keenly his physical features, and looking in them for some sign of who the man really is. The large head. The eyes softened with age, with too much seeing. The big nose. The full moustache. His trembling but always directing hand. We want something we can nail down, a definition, a judgment to justify, not how we truly feel — which is always complicated — but the pointed feeling we want projecting from our hurt. But there was not just hurt. There was a genuine, inexplicable love. At some point he calls me over, his trembling hand up in the air. Introduces me to a poet-mentee from foreign, again. He introduces me to the poet, the poet to me. Says: “He is a terrific poet”. At that point he is looking at neither of us. Who — which one of us — was he talking about? Had he read Sounding Ground? Who was the terrific poet?

                                                           

                                                                        ***

I am invited to Derek’s famous birthday boat-rides down the West coast of the island for his last two birthdays with the world. On both occasions I am out of island, the first time in Jamaica as Writer-in-residence at UWI, the next in India. Reading my poetry. Doing my thing. I am independent of Derek. I am past my list of parallels. On the last occasion I miss the gathering that usually takes place at Government House for his birthday called Friends of Walcott, where foreign writers and poet-mentees are invited to read their work before a St. Lucian and international audience. This year, for the first time, local writers are included, and each person reads one of theirs and one of Derek’s poems. Connecting their own dots. Their own list of parallels implicitly. I am not there for this. Neither is Derek.

                                                                        ***
I was on my way to Newfoundland when I heard Derek was terminally ill. I had seen Sigrid driving him to Tapion hospital a week before I left, on my way from the hospital. In Newfoundland, people ask me about how Derek is doing — not knowing he was ill, but just casually asking. As if I were his child. As if I lived as near to him as I had lived near to his every word. As if he had prepared the world I was going into for me…. In Newfoundland, I argue with a family friend who feels that her spouse’s travels abroad was an abandonment of his family. I stay in my hotel room for the whole day trying to refute this, long after the call from this friend has ended because I am implicated. Trying to show that work can also be love. Industry is a hard, but real way in which love manifests in a world where we are forced into it. Forced into market. Into wage labour. And perhaps it has been very much the burden of men to show what may never be read as love, in this way. My great-grandfather had travelled to Suriname to work in the goldmines, leaving my grandfather and his sister in St. Lucia, promising to return home with a better life for them. He was never able to return. He started a new family, and was not able to return to St. Lucia until he was in his 70s. My grandfather left for California when my mother was very young. Years later, he tells us he merely wanted to see the Wild Wild West. My father’s eulogy for my grandfather, two years ago, I remember noting, was like a catalogue of his many travels: Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica, England — everywhere. Even when he settled for good in St. Lucia, he spent his life as a Social Welfare officer travelling around the island. Where was he when all those children were being born? When his wife was pregnant? Travelling. Everywhere. His love for them was in the everywhere where he had been, the world he had prepared for them. His love had prepared them for the world. Loving them through what he knew he could do. Work. And bringing home bread, or ‘a living’, from everywhere for his children. How does the world— with its many demands of who we should be and how we should serve it, amid all the accusations and recriminations, amid all of men’s bad behaviour and oppression of others, amid the criticism of the ambitious young upstarts of the way you lived in a time they could never know — how does the world, the world we have made, in all its busyness, truly, allow men to love?

                                                                       

***
Moments:

1) Song: At the closing concert of the festival in Newfoundland, we are filled up with folk music. The first song, after another night of thinking alone in the hotel room about work and love and family and the balance and commitment and how one could be the other— the first song, a song from long ago, is sang in the voice of the mother:

“And remember laddie
He’s still your dad
Though he is working far away
In the cold and heat
Throughout the week
On England’s motorway”

                                                                        -Newfoundland Folk song
2) Poem:  

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

 

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

 

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?
                                                                        -from Those Winter Sundays, Robert Hayden
 

3) Theatre:

I.
Troy: “Like you? I go out of here every morning… bust my butt…putting up with them crackers every day …cause I like you? You about the biggest fool I ever saw.
(Pause)
It’s my job. It’s my responsibility! You understand that? A man got to take care of his family. You live in my house…sleep you behind on my bedclothes…fill you belly up with my food…cause you my son. You my flesh and blood. Not ‘cause I like you! Cause it’s my duty to take care of you. I owe a responsibility to you! Let’s get this straight right here…before it go along any further….I ain’t got to like you. Mr. Rand don’t give me my money come payday cause he likes me. He gives me cause he owe me. I done give you everything I had to give you. I gave you your life! Me and your mama worked that out between us. And liking your black ass wasn’t part of the bargain. Don’t you try and go through life worrying about if somebody like you or not. You best be making sure they doing right by you. You understand what I’m saying boy.
II.
Cory: The whole time I was growing up…living in his house…Papa was like a shadow that followed you everywhere…..Everywhere I looked, Troy Maxson was staring back at me….I’ve got to find a way to get rid of that shadow, Mama.

III.
Rose: By the time Raynell came into the house, me and your daddy had done lost touch with one another. I didn’t want to make my blessing off of nobody’s misfortune…. but I took on to Raynell like she was all them babies I had wanted and never had.
(the phone rings)
Like I’d been blessed to relive a part of my life. And if the Lord see fit to keep up my strength….I’m gonna do her just like you daddy did you….I’m gonna give her the best of what’s in me.

IV.
Gabriel: Hey Rose. It’s time. It’s time to tell St. Peter to open the gates. Troy, you ready? You ready, Troy. I’m gonna tell St. Peter to open the gates. You get ready now.

                                                                                                - from Fences, by August Wilson

 

                                                                        ***
Shabine flew home the day after I flew home from Newfoundland. The day after my birthday. Flags at half mast like lumps in the country’s throat. Thank you for the gift of the best you had to give, Derek. It was everything.

                                                            Rest in Peace. Walk good.

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