Reflections at A Celebration of Sir Derek Alton Walcott
Derek Walcott and the author “pose like movie stars”, c.1987-88
by Robert R. Bensen
St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church, Brooklyn, NY
Saturday, April 8, 2017
Monseigneur, Pastors, Consul General, Vice Consul, Ambassador, and friends: I bring greetings from Sigrid Nama in St. Lucia, who sends best wishes and regrets that she cannot be with us today.
The reverence your tributes have shown to Nobel Laureate Sir Derek Walcott and his work moves me and reminds me of a similar ambience in the room decades ago in St. Lucia, where I had brought students to the hostel of the National Research and Development Foundation in Castries. Sir Derek had helped arrange for me to bring a Hartwick class to study West Indian literature. I was in the apartment, enjoying the evening breeze passing through the jalousies, stirring a large palm to rustle dryly outside. I heard voices approaching, and then a group of poets—Robert Lee, Gandalph St. Clair, Fish, and several others—trooped in. We arranged ourselves at a large, round table. Our faces candle-lit, a copy of Sir Derek’s Collected Poems 1948-1984 appeared on the table. Someone suggested we pass it around also and each of us read our favorite Walcott poem. We did, savoring, laughing, muttering amazement and repeating certain lines, till all had read. Then the book went around again as we read our also favorite poem, and again for another favorite poem, and again, for much of the evening, as we laughed, and parsed, and delved, with a fervor you could call devotional.
But as Sir Derek wrote in his “Eulogy for W.H. Auden,” and delivered at a memorial like this one, he “must loathe / our solemn rubbish, / frown on our canonizing farce / as self-enhancing.” So, let me avoid that, as best I can, recalling his own furrowed scowl at praise he thought excessive (though he once said, when I asked what he thought of an essay I’d written, “More praise. More praise.”)
Let’s go for a laugh. And drop the “Sir” for a moment—it’s Derek, after all.
Once we were driving from his condo in Brookline to Cambridge to do some banking. He and his daughter Anna were in the back, my wife Mary Lynn in the front passenger seat. Anna had just come up from Trinidad to start at Boston University, where Derek was teaching.
He said to his daughter, “Anna, I hope you have observed that you and I are in the back seat.”
He paused for a moment for her to wonder why that was noteworthy. Or else she saw it coming. I admit I did not. He continued, “Do you want to know why we are in the back seat?” Another pause. “Because in the driver’s seat is a white racist pig from Chicago.”
The car rocked on its springs with four people beside themselves with laughter—and Derek the loudest. With him, the more transgressive the joke, the better. I’ll come back to that.
Let’s affirm, with Joseph Brodsky, that the great poet writing in English in those years was Derek. A confident man, for all his Lowellian anxiety projected on the postcolonial, neo-imperial scrim behind his personal dramas. A black man “divided to the vein” between his African and European roots. A small-island man who spent much of his life writing about his island while in exile from it. One whose writing prospered in exile, brought glory to St. Lucia by winning the Nobel Prize for Literature and many other laurels, and who wrote his way back home to dwell in prospect of his beloved Pigeon Island to the end of his years.
To think of Sir Derek Walcott as “laid to rest” contradicts one ever restless, whose writing never allowed rest, in his eighties still teaching in England and Canada and the U.S., and traveling to see the Europe he had avoided most of his life—Italy especially, and Paris and the great capitals and cathedrals and monuments—for fear they would overwhelm his island sensibility, and denigrate in his own eyes his beloved islands, I suppose—I admit I never understood his reluctance to go there, and was surprised when those places surfaced in the poems in The Bounty and White Egrets, as if harvesting, pardon, the bounty of their produce and hospitality and yes, the beauty of their women, for whom he sublimated the fealty he may have feared all along would surface, amid women as insistently beautiful as Calypso and Circe and those goddesses and goddess-like mortals in The Odyssey, whose hero his life, let alone one of his masterful masterworks, Omeros, resembled deliberately or according to fate.
He bore his load lightly, with jocularity, and a wickedly keen edge to the blade of his wit set to literature, art, race, anything at all. A favorite one-liner of his: Rocky’s Hamlet: “To be, aw what?”—the “aw what” being a quack. It was such a favorite that he told it to Queen Elizabeth II in 1989, when she presented him with the poetry medal. They were talking about the way Americans performed Shakespeare. When he told her the Sly Stallone Hamlet line, he said, “She just cracked up.”
Derek and the author, “clowning for the camera”, c.1982-83
In our daughter’s bedroom, where he and Sigrid would stay, hung a small etching of a girl’s head, a print by Renoir. At lunch in a restaurant, Derek took a small cardboard and sketched our four-year-old daughter’s head. Sigrid said, “Derek, that’s lovely, you should sign in.” He demurred. She insisted. So he took his pencil and wrote, “Drop dead, Renoir.”
We were walking down Main Street, headed to the office supply store, telling bad jokes. I topped his worst with a really bad one-liner, then suffered his righteous fury, as he whacked me with his briefcase and we took off running, him swinging that briefcase with the manuscript of his next book, now and then connecting with me the best he could. Assault and battery on Main Street! I should have pressed charges.
He always called my wife, Mary Lynn, “George,” or sometimes, “Misty Metaphor,” after she told him at breakfast he should write about the hills and the mist around Oneonta.
Another time in Cambridge, after Seamus Heaney had addressed the English Institute, he, Derek, Mary Lynn and I headed to the Chinese Restaurant on Mass. Ave. Derek spotted a bank of three public telephones, so he ran up to one, answered it in a stagey-loud voice: “Yeah, who is this?…Who?…King who? Oh, King of Sweden? The Nobel Prize?…this is Walcott…What?…You want…who? Oh.” Dismayed, he lowered the phone, and said to us, “Heaney, it’s for you.”
Fortunately, they both would win the big one, along with their friend Joseph Brodsky. Quite a trio.
Inside the restaurant, when the waitress came for our order, Seamus readily started. Derek next. He wasn’t ready, but (as Derek elaborated) obviously Seamus was, because Seamus was brilliant and the soul of Irish poetry after Yeats, while he, Derek, had to work on it because he was so much slower, came from a ‘poor island’ and barely spoke the language, to which Seamus replied with no hesitation, “As has often been remarked.”
For three summers, he let me take care of his three-bedroom condominium at 71 St. Mary’s Street in Brookline, when he and Norline would return to Trinidad. I’d come the day before they left with their enormous cases stuffed, and I’d set about straightening the piles of writing scattered across the floor and bookcases. Great tumbles of partial scripts of his plays, scripts from his students, their poetry, his poetry, notebooks with drafts of quatrains interrupted by columns of numbers for anticipated income and expenses, bills and receipts, letters to answer, even job offers (a University of California campus offered him the chair of its English department—I asked if I should answer it. No, he would, when he got back in a few months)—recommendations to be written, pleas from friends, writers, actors, agents—the UN, the US, all over the world—for attention to this project and that, all with their presumptuous, ingratiating or demanding claims of duty, officialdom, friendship, tutorship. He’d have none of it.
Derek and the author, c.1982-83
But he was the most social man I’ve known, surely, generous with his time and treasure, especially with young people. Those summers, often his condo would be a hive of the young writers and actors and students he befriended, who came and went on what seemed a thoroughfare to his door, or who called day and night, from anywhere in the world. One afternoon a young woman dropped by for her plant that Derek had kept for her while she moved her apartment. Even when he was away, people with keys came to watch TV—a goodly crowd for the NBA playoffs between the Celtics and Lakers, night after night. Scene designers from England dropped in with their coffee table-sized model for Haitian Earth.
I mentioned one day to Derek that a friend of my wife’s needed medical treatment in Boston and was looking for a place to stay. He said she and her husband could stay with him. And so he befriended Martha and Howard Chambers, letting them live in his condo for six weeks in 1985 when Martha needed radiation and chemotherapy for brain cancer. Martha was initially incredulous at his offer and accepted his invitation gratefully. Howard had to be in Oneonta for work much of the six weeks, but Derek and Norline looked after her well. Martha was utterly charmed. Their hospitality was one of the few gifts of good fortune in the time of disaster. She told me that he often would come into her room and sit and talk with her. A few months after she returned to Oneonta following treatment, the cancer took her life. Derek looked pensive when I told him. I didn’t quite catch what he said. I asked him to repeat. He said, still very quietly, “She was such a nice lady.”
Derek visited my classes in St. Lucia and in Oneonta at least 25 times, as well as the painting class that my colleague and friend Phil Young also brought to St. Lucia, with Derek’s encouragement. In 1978, when I came to Hartwick College, Derek Walcott was the first writer I wanted to bring to campus. Thereafter, he came yearly, sometimes more than once, to read from his new books, and to lead writing and acting workshops with the theatre students. He wrote a play, The Ghost Dance, for our students to perform and take to the American College Theater Festival. We mounted a gallery exhibit of his paintings, along with those of poets Elizabeth Bishop, Mark Strand, and Donald Justice. Twice he brought his friend and fellow Nobel laureate, Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, to read with him. Three times he was appointed NEH Distinguished Visiting Professor. Hartwick conferred on him an honorary doctorate in 1991 at a ceremony he transformed by reading, “The Season of Phantasmal Peace.” So, with the degree and the professorship, we claim him both as an alumnus and faculty member.
Derek defined his place in the great movements of poetry and history. He wrote, “I accept my function/as a colonial upstart at the end of an empire,/a single, circling, homeless satellite” (“North and South”). This wandering Odyssean exile is a creature of this historical moment of the Caribbean, but he foresaw, as he told my class in 1988, “It is inevitable that the most fertile basin of world culture next is the Caribbean, just as it was once in the Aegean, where the same thing happened. Think of it as a watering hole, where all the tribes came, the watering hole of the Aegean Sea and the cities that formed around that. You can think increasingly of the similarity between them, and the fact that they are islands and what island culture does.” He could foresee, because it was happening already—and as we see here today, among the young people and children who have performed and read in his honor—that he and his generation of newly independent, post-colonial West Indians would lead to a profusion of creativity that brought what he called the tribal sounds into new prominence among writers and artists of all kinds.
On this celebratory and sad occasion, my words fail, but Derek Walcott’s never do. I’d like to read the poem that speaks for me, for many of us, surely, in our grief and glory for having had him with us.
Half my friends are dead.
I will make you new ones, said earth
No, give me them back, as they were, instead,
with faults and all, I cried.
Tonight I can snatch their talk
from the faint surf’s drone
through the canes, but I cannot walk
on the moonlit leaves of ocean
down that white road alone,
or float with the dreaming motion
of owls leaving earth’s load.
O earth, the number of friends you keep
exceeds those left to be loved.
The sea-canes by the cliff flash green and silver;
they were the seraph lances of my faith,
but out of what is lost grows something stronger
that has the rational radiance of stone,
enduring moonlight, further than despair,
strong as the wind, that through dividing canes
brings those we love before us, as they were,
with faults and all, not nobler, just there.
from Sea Grapes, 1976
Adapted from the author’s tribute to Derek Walcott at his memorial service on April 8, 2017 at St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church, Brooklyn, New York.
About the Author:
Robert R. Bensen is Professor Emeritus of English at Hartwick College.
All images courtesy of the author.