Poet, playwright and Nobel laureate, Derek Walcott died Friday. He was 87 years young. Sir Derek Walcott won the 1992 Nobel Prize for literature among many other awards. He was a very successful poet, no small feat in a world that does not recognize or read of listen to poetry. He was and is now no longer among us, yet forever his poetry will live on with his many accomplishments.
Poets reside in a special place of honor in my heart. They are my species. As I bumble along and pull each word from my skin like a thorn… the masters, like Sir Derek Walcott hold a lantern aloft, so others, like me, can see in the dark. I wrote poetry before I ever wrote prose or ever even drew a picture, it was my first art. As a child, I took a red marker and wrote in very tiny letters all through my house, HELP. I wrote carefully and deliberately on the wall on top of the chair rail, as though it were a three dimensional altar for my word. My parents were confused, frightened, proud and nervous. They knew why I wrote what I wrote, yet claimed to know not. They struggled to laugh it off to their friends and family. The marker was permanent, my father had to repaint every room. Quite the punishment, my most minimalist work.
Much later, my fourth grade teacher took a poem I wrote of George Washington’s Drummer Boy and sent it to Highlight Magazine and it was published, an honor that was only recognized by my teacher. No one else seemed to care, so I didn’t care. I’d love to read that poem someday, to be so pretentious at such a young age makes me smile now… My poetry went on to become the music of my soul and the cries in the night of my childhood. After my first husband died, it was the tearing grief inside my tight chest. It later became the longing loneliness and has often been my one-sided therapy sessions. Now, it is the sun on my face as I watch the world evolve away from me. I have often bemoaned the lack of attention poetry gets, yet I am just as guilty. I don’t seem to read a poet until I discover him in an obituary.
Here are some of Sir Derek Walcott’s quotes, poems and music of the soul:
- Good science and good art are always about a condition of awe … I don’t think there is any other function for the poet or the scientist in the human tribe but the astonishment of the soul.
- The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination: it is the property of the language itself.
- The future happens. No matter how much we scream.
- Time is the metre, memory the only plot.
- The mirror is believed the way a poem is believed. It’s believed because it’s there.
- The time will come when, with elation, you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror, and each will smile at the other’s welcome.
- There’s always more to see.
- Peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life.
- I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer. I have grown up believing it is a vocation, a religious vocation.
- Visual surprise is natural in the Caribbean; it comes with the landscape, and faced with its beauty, the sigh of History dissolves.
- What are men? Children who doubt.
The Sea Is History
Derek Walcott, 1930 – 2017 ©2007
Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.
First, there was the heaving oil,
heavy as chaos;
then, like a light at the end of a tunnel,
the lantern of a caravel,
and that was Genesis.
Then there were the packed cries,
the shit, the moaning:
Bone soldered by coral to bone,
mantled by the benediction of the shark’s shadow,
that was the Ark of the Covenant.
Then came from the plucked wires
of sunlight on the sea floor
the plangent harps of the Babylonian bondage,
as the white cowries clustered like manacles
on the drowned women,
and those were the ivory bracelets
of the Song of Solomon,
but the ocean kept turning blank pages
looking for History.
Then came the men with eyes heavy as anchors
who sank without tombs,
brigands who barbecued cattle,
leaving their charred ribs like palm leaves on the shore,
then the foaming, rabid maw
of the tidal wave swallowing Port Royal,
and that was Jonah,
but where is your Renaissance?
Sir, it is locked in them sea-sands
out there past the reef’s moiling shelf,
where the men-o’-war floated down;
strop on these goggles, I’ll guide you there myself.
It’s all subtle and submarine,
through colonnades of coral,
past the gothic windows of sea-fans
to where the crusty grouper, onyx-eyed,
blinks, weighted by its jewels, like a bald queen;
and these groined caves with barnacles
pitted like stone
are our cathedrals,
and the furnace before the hurricanes:
Gomorrah. Bones ground by windmills
into marl and cornmeal,
and that was Lamentations—
that was just Lamentations,
it was not History;
then came, like scum on the river’s drying lip,
the brown reeds of villages
mantling and congealing into towns,
and at evening, the midges’ choirs,
and above them, the spires
lancing the side of God
as His son set, and that was the New Testament.
Then came the white sisters clapping
to the waves’ progress,
and that was Emancipation—
jubilation, O jubilation—
as the sea’s lace dries in the sun,
but that was not History,
that was only faith,
and then each rock broke into its own nation;
then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote,
fireflies with bright ideas
and bats like jetting ambassadors
and the mantis, like khaki police,
and the furred caterpillars of judges
examining each case closely,
and then in the dark ears of ferns
and in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo
of History, really beginning.
“The Sea Is History” from Selected Poems by Derek Walcott. Copyright © 2007 by Derek Walcott. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.