Searching for Derek Walcott


First Person

A painting by Derek Walcott.

“What is the motto of St. Lucia, boy?”
“Statio haud malefida carinis.”
“And what does that mean?”
“Sir, a safe anchorage for sheeps.”

—Derek Walcott, Another Life


“Sir Matthew! Sir Derek Walcott—he die!”

Three excited girls bounded into my room at about twenty minutes to eight, as I ate breakfast for a change, to deliver the announcement. One of their fathers worked for Walcott and had mentioned it while dropping her off at school. I called the man, who apprehensively confirmed the story. Walcott was dead—but he didn’t want word of it to spread before the family had made a statement. I assured him that I’d tell no one, and spent the next hour wondering whether emailing someone about it would violate my promise, or indeed basic propriety. Within an hour the news broke anyway. 

Though Walcott and I lived on the same island, I didn’t really know him except through his work, which I suspect was—as it is for many people and most artists—the best way to know him. But the island is small, and Walcott big: there could only be so many degrees of separation. I knew where he lived and I’d occasionally see his partner out running errands. I remember catching glimpses of him: exiting the bathroom at Charthouse Restaurant, standing in line at the airport en route to Trinidad.

But I spoke to him only once, at the launching of an anthology of Saint Lucian literary criticism. The very first article in the anthology is a 1949 review of Walcott’s 25 Poems by the polymathic Harry Simmons, who taught the young Walcott and his great friend, the painter Dunstan St. Omer, how to see and how to paint.

After the ceremony, I milled around outside the Cultural Centre; when I spotted him, I introduced myself and mentioned that I referenced him in an article I was writing. “Isn’t it interesting,” I asked, “that both of Saint Lucia’s Nobel Prize winners were descended from recent immigrants and that neither was Catholic, like most of the island?” He nodded and walked off.

It occurred to me that I should have a proper meeting with him someday. But I couldn’t contrive a good reason to see him. To receive his blessing? To ask for a double portion of his spirit? In case my future biographers asked? For free books?

When I was growing up, Walcott was, as I suspect he remains for most people here, a national symbol. Poets don’t usually end up on postage stamps or with state funerals; Poets don’t get islands bequeathed to them to launch art foundations. Along with the Pitons and the Sulphur Springs, our Nobel Laureates were celebrated in tourism brochures and school readers. “More Nobel Prizes per capita than anywhere in the world.” (The village of Todmorden, in West Yorkshire, population twelve thousand, has produced two Laureates.)

I was seven when Walcott won the Nobel; his prize was announced almost a year after the death of Sir Arthur Lewis, who had won the Nobel for Economics in 1979. Lewis’s win came months after Saint Lucia won its independence. I wouldn’t know much about either man’s work for many years, but I did know that George Odlum—radical, orator, athlete, actor, critic, failed politician, and my first intellectual hero—dedicated a an entire issue of his newspaper The Crusader to celebrating his close friend Derek.

Still, the people are poor and books are not a priority. There’s a beauty salon where Book Salon used to be. Most people my age didn’t finish secondary school. We knew he was great but we weren’t sure how good he was. (Walcott once pointed out that proportionally the attendance at a reading here was probably bigger than at one in New York.)  Walcott is such a titan here that I remember seeking out criticism of his work just to see how it looked to those on the outside, those with no investment in our culture or his greatness. But negative reviews were hard to find. Even in the worst-case scenario, the charges were light: derivative, repetitive, willfully obscure, self-indulgent. Yet all conceded he was virtuosic. It perhaps speaks to the scale of Walcott’s achievement that I’ve never thought it amazing that words from our distinct vocabulary—gommier, Anse-La-Raye, Canaries, Laborie, Gros Islet, bois-pain, bois-campeche, bois-flot, pomme-arac, pomme-cythère, pomme granate, et cetera—had wound their way into “serious” literature.

The epigraph from his 1973 book Another Life comes from Malraux’s Psychology of Art: “According to the true biographies, it is never the sheep that inspire a Giotto with a love of painting … What makes the artist is the circumstance that in his youth he was more deeply moved by the sight of works of art than by that of the things which they display.” This gets at Walcott’s primary motive: not to uplift, but to find the art in description. To get the nouns on paper, the people, places, and things of his world. If it’s done honestly—as, in his case, I believe it is—the dignity shines through anyway.


To be born on a small island, a colonial backwater, meant a precocious resignation to fate.
—Derek Walcott

In 1768, when the center of the city now known as Castries moved across the harbor from the Vigie Peninsula, Place D’Armes was designated as the new town center. (During the French Revolution, the Republicans set up a guillotine there.) The name eventually changed to Promenade Square and then, in 1892, to Columbus Square, in honor of the explorer who supposedly passed the island on the feast day of St. Lucy of Syracuse in 1502. Almost one hundred later—five hundred years after the explorer reached the Caribbean—the square was renamed again, this time after Walcott.

I escaped to town mid-morning that Friday. I’m not even sure what for—hoping to witness displays of public mourning? It just felt like an appropriate place to be. A reporter approached me with her cameraman and asked whether I had anything to say on Walcott’s passing; I didn’t. Inside the Square there were only a few indifferent city-council workers taking a break under the gazebo and a few tourists taking pictures of Walcott’s bust.

I walked down Micoud Street en route to Walcott Place, which is on the other side of Castries. The neighborhood had declined since Walcott left; the Walcott home was eventually turned into a printers’ office. The Saint Lucia National Trust acquired the property a few years ago with the goal of turning it into a cultural heritage site honoring the Walcott family. (Derek’s twin, Roderick, was also a noted playwright; their mother, Alix, was a well-known teacher.) The project is part of a wider urban renewal effort founded by the Taiwanese government, designed to make certain parts of the city, as a local tough once put it to me, “no place for skylarking!”

I passed by Choc Cemetery, located on the beach at Vigie, just down the road from G.F.L. Charles Airport. When I was younger and more callow, I suggested this constituted a waste of valuable property and that the bodies should be exhumed, the graves bulldozed. A much older, wiser friend tried to put some sense into me: at least Saint Lucians still had access to this section of the beach. When Derek returned to Saint Lucia after winning the Nobel, he reportedly slowed the caravan as they drove past the graves: “Mama, it’s me, your son is here.”

But he hasn’t joined Alix and Roddy and Harry and Dunstan and George. Derek Walcott is buried on Morne Fortune, close to where Sir Arthur Lewis already resides on the campus of the community college which bears his name. The grave is near Inniskilling Monument; someone on Facebook wondered whether the location was appropriate, given the role of the regiment, which “defeated the French and freed blacks who fought alongside the French, to restore British rule and slavery in Saint Lucia.” Slavery had been abolished during the French Revolution and then reinstated when the British took back the island. But we didn’t build the monument. Another person responded that the monument and park had already been decommissioned; we can ascribe whatever meaning we want to the grounds. And we’ve given Walcott that meaning: it’s his place now.


Matthew St. Ville Hunte lives in Saint Lucia.