The passing of poet Derek Walcott, the giant of Caribbean literature who died Friday at the age of 87, is being mourned by writers and readers across the region, including the Virgin Islands, a place to which Walcott’s work was often connected.
Walcott was born in Castries, St. Lucia, in 1930 and achieved what many would call the world’s highest honor for writers when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. In announcing the award, the Nobel Committee referred to Walcott’s work as “a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment.”
Even at the peak of his international recognition, Walcott remained firmly committed to the island and region of his birth. In this he presented an alternative to the stance taken by the other Caribbean Nobel Laureate of his generation, the Trinidadian V.S. Naipaul, whose self-exile often led him towards bitter denunciations.
Walcott was a traveler, however, and his career as a professor, playwright, critic and poet took him across the Caribbean, North America and Europe throughout the second half of the 20th century and the dawn of the 21st.
Throughout the 1970s, Walcott was particularly active in the Virgin Islands. Between 1973 and 1978, he directed his plays, or scenes from his plays, on several occasions on St. Croix, St. Thomas and Tortola. These included Dream on Monkey Mountain, Ti Jean and his Brothers, Remembrance and Pantomime.
In 1979, Walcott taught a seminar on Tirso de Molina’s The Trickster of Seville (El Burlador de Sevilla) and Walcott’s own adaptation, The Joker of Seville, at the College of the Virgin Islands. While residing at CVI, Walcott produced those two plays as well as his musical Marie Laveau on St. Thomas that November.
References to the Virgin Islands can be found throughout Walcott’s books of poetry and his essays. His critical but always generous and humane sensibility was directed towards the territory in a particularly straightforward way in a poem given the roman numeral “xxvii” in the 1984 collection Midsummer, in which he writes:
the sea’s corrugations are sheets of zinc
soldered by the sun’s steady acetylene. This
drizzle that follows now is American rain,
stitching stars in the sand. My own corpuscles
are changing as fast. I fear what the migrant envies:
the starry pattern they make — the flag on the post office —
the quality of the dirt, the fealty changing under my foot.”
Walcott’s most sustained poetic engagement with the landscapes and history of the Virgin Islands came in 2000’s book-length poem Tiepolo’s Hound. In Tiepolo’s Hound, Walcott finds symmetry between his own artistic becoming and that of the St. Thomas-born impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. In over 160 pages of verse, Walcott explores those symmetries:
“He sketched the flecked bay of Charlotte Amalie
across which a swallow shot like a skimmed stone,
longer than his vow to leave work and family
and join the skein of smoke trawling the horizon
Was this true, his shadow moving over the barrels
of codfish, is the hope of his exile betrayal?
How are his thoughts different from the local quarrels
of the waves at his shoes, isn’t his the old trial
of love faced with his necessity, the same crisis
every island artist, despite the wide benediction
of light, must face in these barren paradises
where after a while love becomes and affliction?”
Walcott also served on the editorial board of the University of the Virgin Islands’ literary journal, The Caribbean Writer, from the time of its founding in 1986 until his death.
“Walcott’s support and insight helped to shape and guide The Caribbean Writer’s path over the past 30 years,” the journal’s editor, Alscess Lewis-Brown, said in a press release issued over the weekend. “For this, we are grateful. We will miss his abiding frank and witty manner.”
“Our writers and scholars have been enriched by their drinks at his intellectual and artistic font,” the release said.