Derek Walcott / Igor Barreto

Derek Walcott

I imagine Derek Walcott as a poet preoccupied with the idea of “paradise” in the life of the Antilles. What place corresponds to this feeling and to the original idea of Eden in the contemporary world? This is the question I glimpse behind his poems. I speak of a preoccupation, that is to say, of someone who is undecided and conflicted. A writer “between two shores” would seem to be the expression that best fits this poet born on the island of St. Lucia; even more if we think that for the Antilles “The Sea is History.” The oscillation of the Caribbean Sea is the movement that best defines Walcott. At the same time his poetry is a celebration of the New World (like Saint-John Perse or Lezama Lima) as well as a bitter acceptance and mixture (like the Virgilio Piñera of the poem “La isla en peso”). The presence of duality can be found in each one of his books, in Omeros or in The Bounty, to cite only two of his most representative works. But I would like to refer more closely to some images emitted by certain poems, like sparks that illuminate his reality and ours. I have always been surprised by the opening verses of Omeros that narrate how a group of fishermen (among them Philoctete, the poem’s protagonist) cut down an enormous cedar to build a canoe. I was surprised that Walcott would choose this image knowing the grave situation of environmental deterioration on the islands. But, on the other hand, there is no image more appropriate for representing that extravagant spirit we have when the time comes to relate with nature, as though it were an unending treasure, and take from it whatever we want without thinking. It is a paradisiacal image (undoubtedly) of this foundational poem Omeros, and at the same time it’s an image touched by a certain unconscious fatalism. Henry David Thoreau once write in his Diary: “When it is no longer possible to wander Nature’s fields, we wander the fields of thought and literature.” And Walcott finds himself in that situation without being able to abandon his inheritance of paradise and his beautiful watercolors.

I found another image, this one with a social critique emphasis, in a poem gathered in various anthologies called “New World.” This poem belongs to his earlier books and it says:

Adam had an idea.
He and the snake would share
the loss of Eden for a profit.
So both made the New World. And it looked good.

Sober and appropriate verses for these times when “golden silver” or “silver gold” once again have an immeasurable value among us. Walcott’s poetry always allows itself these verbal oscillations between dispossession (as seen in the verses cited) and variegated forms of saying.

On many occasions, in interviews as in his essays, Walcott has made startling assertions, such as: “Amnesia is the true history of the New World.” The Old Testament Adam lacked a historical conscience, he lived in a state of suspension, temporally speaking. Perhaps for Walcott this is similar to the paradise the slaves left behind on their bloody journey to the sea of the Caribs. Thrown out of the African paradise, all that remained was “amnesia” (as a point of departure) and a world of penury that has made us write against the grain of this history many times. It has been inevitable for many people, at least for the sake of saving poetry. I imagine a hypothetical Walcott mediating amicably in that famous fistfight between Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera for collateral reasons on the topic of paradise. It’s hard to find an intermediate point. And Piñera complained about “The damned circumstance of water on all sides.” I imagine a Walcott who is shoved from both sides, until he manages to come out of isolation and populate English poetry (as he did) with sounds and trees.

{ Igor Barreto, Papel Literario, El Nacional, 5 May 2007 }

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