There was a primed plastic water pistol, yellow or green, on every table at Derek Walcott’s 84th birthday lunch at the Ladera hotel on the west coast of St Lucia. The Walcott entourage had taken over the restaurant and after we’d dined on saltfish with green bananas, the staff gathered and the guests stood up to sing ‘Happy Birthday’. Then came the carving of a three-foot-square cake embossed with a likeness in icing of the poet’s head, his cautious smile carried on layers of sponge in blue and yellow stripes, two of the four colours of the island’s flag, blue for the sea and yellow for sunshine.
St Lucia likes to remind you that it has more Nobel laureates per capita than anywhere else in the world. The other winner was Arthur Lewis, who took the economics prize in 1979. Walcott won his in 1992. By happy coincidence they share a birthday and the government makes a fuss of its favoured children with a Nobel Laureate Week each January. Asked my business at the airport on my way to record with Walcott for BBC Radio 4, I pulled a copy of The Prodigal from my bag and was waved through. Did the taxi driver know where Walcott lived? He looked at me as if I was carrying a rare and deadly virus.
The jamboree included a lecture on Walcott’s work by Caryl Phillips, the launch of an edition of his poetry selected by Glyn Maxwell, a former student, and a screening of a new Dutch documentary about him.The film was shown in the presence of the governor-general, who wore a St Lucian blue twinset. Alongside her was a quintet of elderly musicians performing dusty calypsos, their sockless feet in smart black shoes. For several years now, a number of Walcott’s friends, family and old students have travelled across the world to wish him well on his birthday, listen to him talk, and flit from one sort of jump-up or party to another. The official events were the only occasions I saw the laureate in long trousers. Walcott’s knees are well known. He’s often photographed barefooted, even barelegged. In Bristol, where I make my radio programmes, one of the first things I saw on my return from St Lucia were his feet planted in the sand in a photo portrait taken by Judith Aronson for her show Likenesses at the Royal West of England Academy. Many poets and writers are in the exhibition: William Empson, Seamus Heaney, Charles Tomlinson, Salman Rushdie, Robert Lowell, Geoffrey Hill. The only other bare feet besides Walcott’s belong to a corpse on a dissecting table in front of Keith Simpson, the forensic pathologist. An illegible name-tag is attached to a big toe.
St Lucia may not be the Isle of Man, but legs matter here. By the time he arrived on the island in the 1550s the French privateer François Le Clerc had lost one of his in a naval battle with the British off Guernsey and contrived a wooden replacement: Jambe de Bois, as he was known, is probably the original pegleg pirate. Amy Winehouse holidayed in this rum-rich environment in 2009, performing when she could and working on some new songs. One night she was snapped in shorts and a flimsy top, crawling from the beach to a tourist diner. In the garish flashlight she looks like a body excavated from Vesuvian ash. When she reached the holidaymakers’ tables she tried to relieve them of their drinks. This was a real case of leglessness. After she died in 2011 a bar in Rodney Bay where she had been to drink renamed itself Rehab. It’s open all night.
The tropical conditions of St Lucia forced Walcott’s legs out into the open: the island’s weather, jungle, ocean and the bony strip of coralline beach where most of its life takes place. In fact, though they’re hard to forget once you’ve seen the pictures, his legs are scarcely the point. For one thing, they’re not what they were: he uses a wheelchair to get about, and a smiling, shy-faced young man called Junior carries him when necessary. For another, his writing has never been fully at home in the tropics. Les Murray, a comparably prolific user of English under a hot sun, made his poem ‘The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever’ into a love song to comfort clothing (‘scunge’), and Walcott likes to wear that kind of thing, but he’s one of the least holidayish of poets. St Lucia has been a site of hard work and a constant source of questions. How benign is this island habitat? Walcott has spent a lifetime scratching at his bites and asking what a home might mean that itches as much as it does. What has it turned the poet into or prevented him from becoming? The titles of his early collections – In a Green Night, The Castaway, The Gulf – speak of local and limiting preoccupations, although in due course his books took on a more peripatetic ring, and sounded less done-to and more doing: The Fortunate Traveller, The Bounty and The Prodigal. Yet as you read over the work it’s clear that St Lucia was always a presence even when Walcott was in North America and Europe. He came home when he reached his eighties, and he’s unlikely to leave again except on short trips (the Globe will stage Omeros next month and maybe he’ll get to London).
It’s odd, in a world fizzing with insects and furious hummingbirds, to hear Walcott speak with such affection about Edward Thomas and John Clare; odd to follow his gaze out to sea and hear him quote Walter de la Mare’s ‘Fare Well’ with its intimations of an English pastoral afterlife. When at the party Glyn Maxwell, or perhaps it was Paul Farley, asked him what it was to be a ‘Caribbean’ poet, he lapsed into silence, the chorus of insects and birds answering on his behalf. The two British poets were putting the questions as I held the microphone and watched the sound levels: the high-pitched calls of hummingbirds set the needles jumping – two species, the green-throated Carib and the Antillean crested, hard to see clearly because they move in a way quite unlike other birds and at such speed.
There were bananaquits too. As we were talking a few came close to us, not much bigger than hummingbirds, black above and yellow below, like birds zipped into bee suits, anxious, constantly on the move, making their thin quit call. We were being audited for our potential sweetness and the birds were disappointed. The bananaquit loves nectar, bowls of sugar on café tables, rotting fruit and anything fermented to around 4-6 per cent alcohol. It will happily come to a bar and sip at an untended beer, returning to tipple throughout the day with no ill effects. (Unlike parrots, which as Aristotle knew, have no head for alcohol: in Australia, where they binge on over-ripe pears, birdwatchers have seen them getting legless, Amy Winehouse-style, faltering on branches and plummeting from trees.) For a long time no one in avian taxonomy knew where to place the bananaquit, and it was bottled nicely in its own family. Recently it has been lumped in with the ungainly ‘pan-American tanager’ cohort. Although it is one of the commonest birds in the towns and villages of St Lucia, away from its syrups it cuts fast through open space and busies itself in the interior of leafy trees, making it tricky to get a good look at. You hear bananaquits almost continually, but their quits are often lost in the general pulse of grackles, crickets, cicadas, hummingbirds, mosquitoes and the wider vegetative buzz.
I may have missed it but I don’t think Walcott ever mentions the bananaquit. The magnificent frigatebird, a very different proposition (a pterodactyl-like sea bird strangely disconnected from the sea), scores well in the poetry, with at least a dozen mentions. High above us, for several days in various places, there was almost always an all-black male or black-and-white female or immature bird hanging like an attenuated kite with loose long wings and deep-cut tail. An ‘idling pivot’, a Walcott poem calls it, ‘that weighs this world exactly as it pleases’. Columbus was impressed by the frigatebird and described it in his log; Melville made a poem from one, and the ‘black hawk’ that lifts Ahab’s hat from his head and ominously drops it, far from the Pequod, into the sea, is most likely a frigatebird too. It is not a raptor – the taxonomists have it between cormorants and herons – but it has hawkish tendencies. Sailors called it ‘the man-o’-war bird’. It’s a pirate – a kleptoparasite to scientists – known for snapping up the ill-guarded treasure of others. It can catch its own food if required and will take flying fish, but its feathers are poorly waterproofed so it avoids the waves if it can, and prefers others to go angling on its behalf. Its commonest victims are boobies, which it hounds until they vomit their most recent fish-meal, at which point it aborts its chase and dives below the booby to collect the stinky prize before it slaps into the sea. As we watched one above us, Walcott ran through the island languages and their various names for the bird: the descriptive but near neutral French, queue-en-ciseaux, the equivalent English, scissor tail, and the more animated Creole, sizo de la mer, which, best of all for Walcott, can be pared down to sizo la mer. He is good on Creole terms for ‘zwazo’, or les oiseaux.
The Walcott poems that begin and end Maxwell’s bulky selection were written sixty years apart but they are strikingly similar, made from the same place, seen through the same eyes. The earliest, from 1949, begins with ‘fishermen rowing homeward in the dusk’. In the most recent, from White Egrets (2010), the last things noted are ‘two cruise ships, schooners, a tug, ancestral canoes’. As we recorded Walcott reading the two poems, a pair of narrow fishing pirogues slid into view just offshore, heading home as they do in the 1949 poem, though this time with outboard motors. The next day, watched over by two of his ‘cruciform’ frigates, we went to eat some of the catch that had been cooked on the beach a few yards from the house.
Walcott came to join us, but he is not comfortable on the beach. That’s the way it is for him with St Lucia generally: the landscape is seen through a haze of reticence about his place in it. He was always on the point of leaving, and in fact took off for more than twenty years. Many of his St Lucia poems enact a kind of estrangement from their ostensible subject. Overseas, in the guise of the travelling poet, he points up unfamiliar things in his new surroundings in order to mark his separation from them, yet when the poet of St Lucia speaks of his home, his language and cadence seem oddly to set him at a remove from the idiom of the island:
The hospital is quiet in the rain.
A naked boy drives pigs into the bush.
The coast shudders with every surge. The beach
Admits a beaten heron. Filth and foam.
There in a belt of emerald light, a sail
Plunges and lifts between the crests of reef,
The hills are smoking in the vaporous light,
The rain seeps slowly to the core of grief.
It could not change its sorrows and be home.
(‘Return to D’Ennery, Rain’)
It’s as though he intended to write himself away from St Lucia but had first to catch an essence of it and hold onto it. But it’s untenable, as we know from his poignant disaffection, in poem after poem, with his ‘seasonless’, ‘monodic’ island bound to the wheel of ‘vegetal fury’, a ‘primal garden that engendered decay’. In the poems it is hardly ever a home and its other inhabitants never amount to much, since they too are condemned to the homelessness the poet has discovered for himself. A ‘strange, cyclic chemistry/That dooms and glories all at once’ has little room for humans and their history. Instead there is the sky and the sea, and the advancing welter of vegetable life.
Reading Walcott’s poems beneath the dripping leaves they describe, you can also see how qualities he attributes to St Lucia have passed into his prosody. Poems can arrive with the whump of a tropical morning: there is no cool dawn, you’ve already slept in too late, and the sun is high and hot. Every socket in the landscape has an ill-wired plug and the place is buzzing; decibel levels are aggressive: ‘I pause to hear a racketing triumph of cicadas/setting life’s pitch, but to live at their pitch/of joy is unendurable. Turn off/that sound.’ His first poems rose swiftly and capably to a plateau of noisy enervation and the needles on the recording monitors have stayed in the red as they would for a hummingbird choir. There is more quietness now, yet over sixty years the hot and winded tone is distinctive and confidently sameish. Two hundred pages into the new selection, the novelty of a short-lined poem like ‘Sainte Lucie’ shifts the air in the sails, as though after years spent in the doldrums:
Come back to me
in the indigo mountains
of Jamaica, blue depth,
deep as coffee,
flicker of pimento,
the shaft light
on a yellow ackee
the bark alone bare
en haut betassion
the wet leather reek
of the hill donkey
Longer-lined poems are the norm, and soon resumed. If you live in the tropics, where nature is so brazen and emphatic, if you rarely experience the seasons you read about in books shipped in from northern latitudes, if the sun goes down at the same hour throughout the year and the night is always as long as the day, how do you know when to end one verse and start another, or stop one poem and move on to the next? Dub reggae makes the best of the Caribbean equinox, echoing its own echo in a static soundscape. Temperate-zone poets – Czesław Miłosz, say, or Seamus Heaney (who was a close friend and came to several of the Walcott birthdays) – can ‘glorify things just because they are’, as Miłosz wrote and Heaney quoted. In the tropics, biodiversity rules out that kind of writing. The air is heavier than it ought to be, and thick with wings; there is too much sugar; fish fly out of the sea; the rain is warm and life rots as it ripens.
When he was away from St Lucia – teaching in Boston mostly, from the early 1980s, with a more recent stay in Canada – Walcott’s poems evinced a profusion of the kind that troubled him while he listened to the insects or gazed at the vegetation on the island. His world tours brought on an exotic abundance of train poems and plane poems, Eurocultural cameos, American disasters, poems about distracting young beauties, visions of ancestral ghosts raised and laid to rest again. There was clotting and congestion. Ice and snow – he does these beautifully – became a northern substitute for extreme weather in the tropics. The title poem from The Fortunate Traveller (1982) was written soon after the wandering began, with the insects still following him:
No one will look up now to see the jet
fade like a weevil through a cloud of flour.
One flies first-class, one is so fortunate.
Like a telescope reversed, the traveller’s eye
swiftly screws down the individual sorrow
to an oval nest of antic numerals,
and the iris, interlocking with this globe,
condenses it to zero, then a cloud.
Beetle-black taxi from Heathrow to my flat.
We are roaches,
riddling the state cabinets, entering the dark holes
of power, carapaced in topcoats,
scuttling around columns, signalling for taxis,
with frantic antennae, to other huddles with roaches;
we infect with optimism, and when
the cabinets crack, we are the first
to scuttle, radiating separately
back to Geneva, Bonn, Washington, London.
It isn’t until the end of The Prodigal (2004) that he returns home. Now the voice is curtailed, yet clearer. From White Egrets:
Some friends, the few I have left,
are dying, but the egrets stalk through the rain
as if nothing mortal can affect them, or they lift
like abrupt angels, sail, then settle again.
He writes elegies to friends and family and the beginnings of elegies to himself. His libido gets a last shake, in a battle with a ‘whimsical bladder and terrible phlegm’, but there is also birdwatching. He has come back, he explains, to the ‘green thicket of oblivion’ where at last his heart can accept what it previously couldn’t and will now ‘fasten on everything it moved from’, including ‘the white egrets/feeding in a flock on the lawn’. The birds in the poem are ‘the colour of waterfalls/and of clouds’. The island and its writer, in love but at odds for so long, are reconciled.
The hotel where we celebrated Walcott’s birthday has infinity pools facing the sea. At one edge of the view from the pools are the twin peaks of the Pitons, formidable mountains rising sheer out of the sea as if drawn by a child or digitised for an overstated thriller. James Bond himself would have seen them often: I mean James Bond, the author of Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies, whose name appealed to Ian Fleming as he cast around for something to call 007. Both men spent time in the Caribbean. They met in 1964, and Fleming handed Bond a copy of You Only Live Twice, inscribed: ‘To the real James Bond from the thief of his identity.’ Bond’s bird book, first published in 1936, is still in print and useful, especially on bananaquits.
By the time we sang ‘Happy Birthday’ at the hotel, some of the rowdier guests had let off a squirt or two from their water pistols. Casting a glance at the remains of the cake I could see why the weapons had been issued. Tiny, black, sweet-toothed lesser Antillean bullfinches had invaded the pudding table. They had finished the passion-fruit cups and were making a start on the birthday cake, filling their stout beaks with bits of Walcott’s sugary likeness.