Homecomings: Sir Derek Walcott

Tony's pic of St Lucia
Homecomings: Sir Derek Walcott
And all the ways grew dark...Tony on the literary genius of St Lucia's Derek Walcott. Photograph by Tony Costigan.

À Castries, sur la belle île de Sainte-Lucie…at Castries, on the beautiful island of St Lucia, in January, 1930, ‘Teacher Alix’, as she was known, gave birth to twin boys: Derek Alton Walcott, a future Knight Commander of the Order of St Lucia, and Richard Aldon Walcott, a future Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). Both skilled wordsmiths would grow to receive universal recognition as poets and playwrights.

 Alix Walcott whose African ancestry traced back to the Caribbean slave era was, as her epithet implies, a teacher as well as wife, mother and lover of music. Her husband Warwick Walcott, a watercolour artist, was the son of a white Englishman originally from Shakespeare’s county, Warwickshire, and a black Caribbean woman. The twin brothers also had an older sister named Pamela. Derek sometimes liked to imagine his father suggesting to him that his Warwickshire blood ties gave him the Will to become a poet for the Caribbean.

If, as Plato mused, the centres of Greek culture which bounded the Aegean were as frogs around a pond, then similarly, the same might be said of the Antilles, the islands which bound the Caribbean Sea as centres of ‘Creole’ culture. As with life in the Aegean, creole life in the Caribbean archipelago moves with the same shuttling rhythm of the sea.

Creole was originally used to describe members of the white plantocracy of the islands. It simply meant ‘locally born’. It also came to be used to describe slaves that were locally born, not in Africa.

Since those times, Creole culture and its derivatives, such as ‘creolisation’ have evolved into the syncretising fusion which permeates Caribbean life: its language, folklore and arts, such as the bacchanal of Masquerade or its cuisine, cricket and even dominoes.

Dating back to the Imperial era, the four main language groups were Hispanic (Portuguese and Spanish), Dutch, French and English. With the shifting of power, through conquest and treaty, islands changed hands many times.

After its purchase from the Caribs by the French in 1651, control of the island of St Lucia changed hands no less than fourteen times, until finally being ceded to Britain with the Treaty of Paris, 1814. This period not only witnessed the attrition of the native Amerindians (Arawaks and Caribs) throughout the region but also the arrival of millions of coerced migrants from across sub-Saharan Africa to be used as slave labour in the Americas.

Since then, other cultural groups have settled the islands such as the post-emancipation arrival of indentured Chinese and East Indians as well as Arabs from Lebanon and Syria. Clearly, this movement of diverse peoples led to a cultural cross-fertilization of ethnic, linguistic and geographic cultures, the strongest elements emerging according to the individual story of each particular island and island group, but with many elements common to all. It is only fitting then, that a classically educated poet and playwright of the Antilles came to be inspired by, and identified with, the epic poems of Homer, the creator of Achilles.

In his works, Walcott sometimes allowed his characters, like Blind Billy Blue of The Odyssey, to reveal something of his own feelings for Homer because he liked his stories. However, most enthusiasts and critics alike, agree that Walcott’s finest work was Omeros. First published in 1990 and consisting of 5,000 lines, Omeros meets all of the criteria of an epic poem, telling the story of migrant and displaced peoples. It was for this particular piece of work that Walcott was made a Nobel Laureate for Literature in 1992.

Omeros, Greek for Homer, takes us on a journey, sometimes metaphysical, from the island of the Iguana, Iounalao (an Amerindian name) in the Caribbean, to Africa, to the Great Plains of North America and to England. The inferred reflections and parallels to Walcott’s own journeys of self-discovery and spiritual muses, through the subtleties of nostoi (homecomings) and nostsos (returning home) allow us a little insight into Walcott himself. Indeed, he occasionally sings to us with his own voice, of his relationships with his loved ones, especially his father who died early in his life.

The poem begins with its connection to the Caribbean Sea: first we are introduced to Philoctete, a fisherman, explaining to cruise-ship tourists how dugout canoes are constructed. On his ankle he bears a pus-weeping wound (a metaphor for three-hundred years of shackled, psychological trauma) finally healed by the ministrations of the obeah practicing, Ma Kilman, proprietor of the No Pain Café. Then there are his fellow journeymen, Achille and Hector, who with their hearts yearning (Odysseus-like) study the changing moods of the sea.

Achille and Hector, their rival souls as turbulent as the sea itself, lost to that woman, Helen. That woman in a yellow dress, a granddaughter of Africa, over whom wars are fought. Helen, whose allure announces its presence in the frenzied hearts of her admirers like a carnival of unspoken adjectives. Reader beware!

The creoles are not the only peoples to be represented. So too are the ex-patriots in the form of the British, Major Plunkett (Retd.) and his Irish wife, Maud; as are some of the dispirited and displaced, tribal First Nations (as they prefer to refer to themselves) of the prairies.

Chez Walcott…at Walcott’s house there may have been many rooms with many doors, but its foundations, bricks and mortar are firmly set in the life and culture of Caribbean, creole society.

Clearly, Walcott was an extraordinarily talented and prolific poet and playwright. In 2016, among his many other achievements, he received the outstanding award of a Knighthood to accompany his Queen’s Medal for Poetry, his OBE, and his Order of the Caribbean Community (OCC).

Sir Derek Alton Walcott died in 2017. What greater gift and beacon of hope could he leave for all of humankind and especially the peoples of the Caribbean, than his life’s works and the citation to the Nobel Prize winners, which reads:  'For the Greatest Gift to Mankind.'