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Lines of Thinking, August 2017: Derek Walcott

Welcome to “Lines of Thinking," a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley. Each installment will feature a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.



The death of poet-playwright Derek Walcott in March brought me up short. He was 87 and a Nobel Prize laureate who continued to produce luminous work into his last years. Yet what struck me immediately when I read he had died was the loss of a creative force and a painterly language aimed at a deep sense making meaning; someone whose unique gifts made possible what Seamus Heaney called a ”poetry of redress” even as they unfailingly exposed the fault lines, fissures, and calamitous effects of slavery, colonialism and cultural expropriation in his native West Indies and beyond.

From his epic 1990 poem "Omeros", he writes:

who knew a climate

 

as monotonous as this one could only produce   

from its unvarying vegetation flashes   

of a primal insight like those red-pronged lilies

 

that shot from the verge, that their dried calabashes   

of fake African masks for a fake Achilles

rattled with the seeds that came from other men’s minds.

 

His lifelong practice as painter and his studied interest in its art and history showed throughout his work and especially in his colored drenched masterwork, Tiepolo’s Hound, which traces the dual journeys of the impressionist Camille Pissaro, who was also born in St. Lucia, and a “failed” painter (Walcott himself) as they navigate the tidal forces of 19th and 20th century colonialism to make new culture.

In a very short piece, "Midsummer, Tobago", ideas of place, climate, light, color and time are quickly and poignantly interwoven.

Midsummer, Tobago

Broad sun-stoned beaches.

 

White heat.

A green river.

 

A bridge,

scorched yellow palms

 

from the summer-sleeping house

drowsing through August.

 

Days I have held,

days I have lost,

 

days that outgrow, like daughters,

my harboring arms.

 

As I’ve said, Walcott died this past March. For some reason I thought of the terrible 2011 Japan tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster at Fukushima that had also occurred in the month of March. It seemed an utter non sequitur until I recalled a project some friends there had initiated: collecting and sorting the countless pottery shards and broken things that had been left lying in the abandoned homes and shops of the region, so that they could be given new, beautiful life through the ancient craft of kin-tsugi—where gold leaf is added to lacquer paint to fuse together broken bowls, vases, cups and dishes or to make altogether different objects from what might otherwise remain detritus.

Now I have no idea if Derek Walcott had ever heard of kin-tsugi, but his power of imagination and command of language and historical insight furnished him with an allied technique to sort, assemble and fuse ever-fresh visions capable of transporting our understanding to new places. 

Here is his poem "Love After Love," taking us beyond T.S. Eliot and even the humbly insightful Jalaluddin Rumi. It is one my favorites.

Love After Love

The time will come

when with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror

and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

 

and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was yourself.

 

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart.

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

 

all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the letters from the bookshelf,

 

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.