The trinidad Guardian / I’m thinking of Walter de La Mare’s Fare Well, a poem he cherished, and hearing these lines in the grit of his voice, with the waves joining the recitation: “How will fare the world whose wonder / Was the very proof of me?” It’s a question for us, we the bewildered, we the ones left behind.
Derek Walcott left us a universe he built with sedimental (not sentimental) accretion, the great mythology he re-made out of our byzantine lands and lives. He believed so very deeply in us; he really believed in the Caribbean, which he taught us is a synonym for the world.
His calling to catch the light right has forged an ethics of radical relation, a critique that increases life. We can speak of his incredible synthesis, his genius for metaphor (travel, change), his simultaneity, his elemental music, but all this is lit by an immense and visionary love.
Derek said to me once, “The presence of that landscape, or seascape, inside you is superior to whatever language you speak, it is stronger than the language you speak. A mountain, a bay, a beach, a tree, is stronger than anything you write. It’s a physical, beautiful thing. . .”
And he continued, “But I’m telling you though that you can’t separate the rhythm of Marley from the hills of Jamaica. They are powerfully related. And you don’t need the Marley, because the hills are there, really. But ultimately they are only manifestations of praise.”
When I was trying to find a way to talk about my experience of reading Walcott, I thought of something the American poet Bob Hass said about translating the great Polish writer, Czeslaw Miłosz. He said, “It’s like being alive twice.”
Reading The Schooner Flight, published in 1979, the year I was born, was like another life for me. Shabine sails all the way up the Caribbean chain, from Trinidad, one of my countries, to The Bahamas, the other: “I know these islands from Monos to Nassau.” My father, Canada Hall man, and my mother, Trinity Hall woman, met at UWI and took Shabine’s epic journey from Trinidad to The Bahamas where my brother and I were born.
Everybody has a Walcott story. I have too many to tell. After a reading he gave in London over a decade ago, his partner Sigrid Nama said to me, “You just keep on turning up like a bad penny.” And bad-penny me was somehow welcomed into his fold. I am still floored by his generosity, his genius sonority. Celebrating him for Nobel Laureate Week remains my greatest honour.
And here is a small moment — on one of my many trips to St Lucia with a community formed out of love for Derek, the group of us had dinner in Gros Islet, probably Razamataz, for Indian food. My wife (we would be engaged in a few years) and I were leaving the next day and we said our goodbyes to Derek, Sigrid and everyone else. We decided to walk home, holding each other, and strangely a little bit like The Light of the World, someone in a van called to us. It was Derek pulling up next to us—he wanted to show love and tell us goodbye again.
Every day I think of the line, “Christ, my craft, and the long time it is taking!”
Have I disappointed you? Have I failed you?
In that banner group I call the “Caliban Generation,” Derek Walcott was a truly Pan-Caribbean thinker and maker whose self-quarrel was no less than epic. He had a vision capacious enough to include us all.
There is the ineluctable force of something in him and his oeuvre, carrying out the work of his father, an oceanic ongoingness against the terror of time.
The past tense is painful.
The Caribbean is still seen (even by ourselves at times) as either “Paradise” or “Wasteland” or both, ever at the bottom of the timeline, doomed to live in the hold of all hierarchies. But Derek flips the script, so that this (time)line is no longer vertical but horizontal, like the horizon at Cas-en-Bas. All is now. And, in his humility and ambition on that horizon, he stands shoulder to shoulder with Shakespeare and Dante and Yeats. Catch them in the tent with Spoiler.
For years now, I have been turning over the last words of his Nobel Lecture like a shell in my hands– “cherishing our significance.” What does that mean? “Insignificant”— unimportant, small in size. Fully claimed by Trinidad and Tobago, it matters that Derek was a “small islander” in “small” Trinidad in the “small” Caribbean. St Lucia—light, small in the small in the small. “Insignificant”—without meaning, answering to no purpose. Those deemed insignificant, like us, are without meaning that they can understand, answering to no purpose but our own. It’s not that the subaltern can’t speak, it’s that, as Wahneema Lubiano put it, the system can’t hear. Inaudible, opaque, insignificant. We have a vision, a power beyond our own comprehension, in our mas of blest obscurity. We the bastards of History, the strangers, the outsiders, the small ones, los nadies, les damnés de la terre.
He more than anyone else shows us the infinite in the infinitesimal.
As I worry about a world without him in it (“whose wonder / Was the very proof of me?”), I remember the end of Omeros, full of measureless thanks: “When he left the beach the sea was still going on.”
Even in your stillness you are moving still.
• Christian Campbell is a Trinidadian-Bahamian poet, essayist and cultural critic and the author of the widely acclaimed book, Running the Dusk (Peepal Tree Press). He was the youngest person to deliver the annual Derek Walcott Lecture for Nobel Laureate Week in St Lucia. Derek Walcott left us a universe he built with sedimental (not sentimental) accretion, the great mythology he re-made out of our byzantine lands and lives. He believed so very deeply in us; he really believed in the Caribbean, which he taught us is a synonym for the world.