Walcott: Caribbean Colossus

Derek Walcott, by his work, achieved three colossal feats.

First, he wrote about the Caribbean landscape in such as way as to magnify it. Not only did give our landscape a certain epic status; he conferred on it deific significance. As perhaps, only the fallen Taino, Arahuacan ancestors, deified before. Here is Walcott writing in Omeros:

… the same sunrise stirred the feathered lances of cane

down the archipelago’s highways.

This is not just cane. Cane you pass by when coming down the highway. He bequeaths stature, majesty, to ordinary cane. He confers on us, our landscape – that which we have been taught, like Caliban, the Shakespearean slave, to despise – a majesty. The canefield is filled with feathered lances stirred by the sunrise! Here he is writing about the Caroni Plains in The Spoiler’s Return (1981):

… the torn brown patches of the Central Plain,

Slowly restitched by needles of rain,

And the frayed earth, crisscrossed like old bagasse,

Spring to a cushiony quilt of emerald grass,

And who does sew and sow the patch of land?

The Indian. And whose villages turn to sand?

Here he uses an extended metaphor; all the words, images, relate to sewing. Just as a person sews, stitches a quilt, just so do the needles of rain sew the frayed clothes of earth into a cushiony emerald quilt of grass. The industrious rains are transforming the brown old garb of the dry season into the wet season, a munificent quilt of green grass. “Crisscrossed like old bagasse” depicts the patchwork of the Caroni cane lands lying in fallow. This is what Spoiler sees as he watches out over the Caroni Plains from the Laventille hills.

Second, Walcott savagely attacks the post-Colonial kingdoms of the Caribbean. The last two lines of the last excerpt, for example, critiques the way we have transformed our villages, agricultural lands, into “sand”, a metaphor of sterility. In The Spoiler’s Return, using a barrage of rhyming couplets, Walcott unleashes his best irony, sarcasm, puns, banter, vituperation to critique Trinidad in 1981.

In The Spoiler’s Return, Walcott assumes the mask of Spoiler, the dead kaisonian known for his humour and irony. He uses the persona of Spoiler, his identity, voice. Spoiler is in hell with the other great satirists, spoilers, of the age: “Lord Rochester, Quevedo, Juvenal, Maestro, Martial, Pope, Dryden, Swift, Lord Byron, /The lords of irony, the Duke of Iron”; things have become so corrupt in Trinidad, he has no choice but to come back from hell to sing about it. He sits high on a bridge in Laventille, and witnesses the local scene.

What does he see?

People excuse their failure to act: “Is the same voices, that in the slave ship,/ Smile at their brothers, ‘Boy. Is just the whip!’”

All the ethnic groups seem compromised, by greed. All the pillars of society, the artist, journalist, justices of the high bench, politicians, the ordinary folk, have become mercenary, anti-revolutionary. And, “Corbeaux like cardinals line the La Basse.”

Graft, curry favour and corruption reigns. All is bobohl, pappy show, mimic:

Is carnival, straight Carnival that’s all

The beat is base, the melody bohbohl,

All Port of Spain is a twelve-thirty show,

Some playing Kojak, some Fidel Castro,

Some Rastamen, but, with or without locks,

To Spoiler is the same old khaki socks,

We dance to a base beat, to the music of bohbohl. We are all actors in a Carnival drama. There are no revolutionaries, just men mimicking the American tv detective, Kojak; or imitating the real revolutionary, Castro; or are Rastas with locks, not philospphy. To Spoiler, “is the same old khaki socks”. Khaki was the wear of the colonial master, commandol, field foreman.

Walcott develops this theme of Colonial re-entrapment in the following lines:

Is crab climbing crab-back, in a crab-quarrel,

And going round and round in the same barrel,

Is sharks with shirt-jacs, sharks with well-pressed fins,

Ripping we small-fry off with razor grins;

Nothing ain’t change but colour and attire.

Around and around we go in the same barrel. No one has a solution of how to get out of the barrel. Instead of finding a solution, we are climbing on each other’s backs. The new elite, in his official wear, his shirt jac, his lapels pressed fine and neat, like the fins of sharks pressed to its sides, now attacks the small fries, the sardines in the social ecology, with razor grins. Walcott concludes that nothing has changed but colour and attire: from jackets, ties and khakis, to sharks in shirt jacs.

Walcott’s third monumental feat has been to win acclaim. He produced a plethora of plays, paintings, films, books of poems; he won the Nobel Prize in 1992. He was the man who cut his studies short at the University of the West Indies in the 1960’s and stood in a market square in St. Lucia, peddling his poems. He believed in his craft. He persisted in a workmanlike way. His craft, fidelity to his work, brought the Caribbean into the light of metropolitan review and scholarship. Two of his keenest admirers have also passed on: Dr. Patricia Ismond, a St. Lucian, a UWI lecturer, who fought to finish her book on Walcott during her illness; and Irma Rambaran, who devoted ages trying to elucidate his filmic vision. They are now all three, gathered as one.

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