Derek Walcott (1930–2017)

Derek Walcott, 2012. Photo: Jorge Mejía Peralta.

DEREK WALCOTT WROTE, “ANSWERING DEATH, EACH WHISPERED, ‘ME?’” He died in March where he was born, in Saint Lucia.

A Nobel laureate, Walcott taught poetry at Boston University. Along with poets including Édouard Glissant, who died in 2011, Walcott bore the legacy of the previous Caribbean generation’s poetic icon, Aimé Césaire: Glissant, through a philosophy grounded in pastoral abstraction; Walcott, through a Shakespearian epicism that measured the region’s history with a “hymn’s metronome” (to use one of his own phrases).

Both writers were animated by the spirit of opacity—a term Glissant defined as the character of that which is irreducibly singular. For the Caribbean, this meant an existence in its own right despite, if never beyond, colonialism. Of that history, Walcott wrote:

I say to the ancestor who sold me, and to the ancestor who bought me, I have no father, I want no such father, although I can understand you, black ghost, white ghost, when you both whisper “history,” for if I attempt to forgive you both I am falling into your idea of history which justifies and explains and expiates, and it is not mine to forgive.

In a commemorative essay on Walcott this spring, the philosopher John E. Drabinski responded to the poet’s refusal of explanation and forgiveness as an affirmation of the Caribbean present’s singularity:

If we imagine life after to be the restoration of a whole, then we cannot but conclude . . . that the Caribbean—and the black Americas more broadly—is only broken, never whole. But . . . an orphan narrative is its own kind of story. It sees a world already made out of fragments.

In the light of these fragments, I have thought lately about a conversation I had with my friend the artist Andrew Ross, who observed in his own life the way that African and Caribbean blackness are elided in the American imaginary—a dynamic that contributes to undermining the possibility of an undivided belonging. It may be in the work of artists in the Americas—those, such as Ross, seeking their own claims to opacity—that Walcott’s orphan narratives of a whole in fragments are finding their next being.

This paradox moves dialectically through Walcott’s work, between singularly Caribbean images under the “benediction of a shark’s shadow” and the persistent grasp of black and white ghosts who reduce beings to their derivations: justifications, explanations, expiations. In his 2007 poem “The Sea Is History,” these figures meet, in one stanza placing the expiating “whisper ‘history’ ” into the mouths of creatures, and another giving voices to the land:

then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote . . .

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.

Abraham Adams is an artist and the founder of the gallery Time Farm.