Derek Walcott’s documentary film “Poetry is an Island” makes its cinematic debut during the 2014 Saint Lucia Jazz & Arts Festival. Dr. Leanne Haynes offers a review.
“I have an immense longing for St. Lucia when I’m away, I think it has to do with everything, the light, the sea, even the sound of the sea”
— Derek Walcott
When I was asked to review Poetry is an Island, the new documentary about St. Lucian writer and artist Derek Walcott, I was hit with such severe writer’s block. Granted, I do experience this from time to time (as I am sure we all do) and indeed I believe that is the nature of creativity; it peaks and troughs much like the pulse of the sea. But this was something very different. Stronger. Extra strong even. Just like Derek Walcott’s image of the moon in his perfectly crafted epic Omeros. It was someone’s comment about needing (creative) blocks to be able to build that made me realise that what I actually needed to do was deconstruct in order to articulate just why this documentary, directed by Ida Does, and produced by Ida Does and Rebecca Roos, had affected me so deeply, stunned me to silence like an uninterrupted horizon.
So crouched and motionless, to borrow the words of Walcott’s character Seven Seas, I must take a journey back to the moment where love began to move around the heart (Omeros, 291). I was first introduced to Derek Walcott’s poetry at the University of Essex, where I did my BA, MA, and eventually a PhD in St. Lucian literature, which allowed me to visit the island I have come to love. Professor Maria Cristina Fumagalli, who has dedicated much of her academic life to the study of Caribbean literature (and especially Walcott’s work) was teaching a course called ‘Expanding the Caribbean’. If truth be told, my decision to take the course was swayed entirely by her. She had taught me for a couple of other courses in the first two years of my degree and she reignited my passion for literature, which at that time was merely a small flicker of a flame because of difficult times, or ‘a journey on worried waters’ (291). At that point, I had not read, or at least not that I can recall, a single piece of literature from the Caribbean. That was all about to change. We read Walcott’s ‘Sea Chantey’ then Omeros and time stopped. Contrary to the popular saying, the rest is not history; rather it changed my future and became my present – as I write, here and now.
The University of Essex was fortunate to have Derek Walcott as its Professor of Poetry. Walcott visited periodically and students, especially those with a keen interest in Caribbean literature, were able to attend creative writing lessons with the writer himself. I vividly recall attending a Q & A session with Walcott and I remember being picked to ask a question. I couldn’t articulate myself. I stumbled over my words and even when some loosely formed question escaped my mouth, I failed to even take on board the response. My voice reverberated in my head, surrounding me like the concrete buildings of UoE. I knew all at once that I would never be able to put into words what this man had done for me; how he had changed the course of my life and yet it felt like it was always meant to be this way. t is this familiar sense of ‘what was meant to be’ that strikes me in the opening few minutes of Poetry is an Island. All my senses are heightened. My tiredness falls away like the receding tide, and my heart feels what it had done all those years ago when I first lay eyes upon ‘Sea Chantey’ as a young undergraduate.
This feeling of connection so skilfully captured by the film’s director means that the viewer does not necessarily have to be overly familiar with Walcott’s writing to appreciate his lifelong dedication to St. Lucia. By featuring archival recordings of the Nobel Laureate speaking over two decades ago about “the desperate joy of trying to put it [St. Lucia] down on paper” and cutting to present-day shots of him painting the landscape, the island is firmly established as the central core, heartbeat even, of his life’s work. When asked about the importance of filming in St. Lucia, Director Ida Does stated, “From the start onward, I knew that I wanted to meet Derek on his beloved island St. Lucia. The other possibility could have been to film him while he was traveling in Europe or anywhere else, but I was really fascinated by the idea of meeting him in St.Lucia, on his veranda and his favorite beaches, walking around in his garden. The experience of his poetry, I imagined, could be best felt on the island. I was looking for something that is difficult to describe, but what is the essence of his work, to me. His work is so rich and extensive, I needed to zoom in, limit myself in trying to get closer to the poet, while at ease…at home…on the beach, with his friends. Not so difficult to me, because I share this deep love for Caribbean islands with Derek.”
The title sequence reinforces the significance of location by offering snapshots of the things that Walcott so poignantly captures in his writing and paintings. We see the island’s flora and fauna, its landscapes and seascapes, and the people that make St. Lucia what it is. Along with invoking music by Cha! Music Production, the title sequence makes for very sensuous viewing. It is a visual delight and we are given a small glimpse into what it is that has captivated Walcott in a career that spans over 65 years. ust one of the film’s strengths is the level of intimacy created by the selection of personal and informed perspectives that run throughout its entirety. There is input from Walcott’s son, Peter, also an established painter who, like his father, foregrounds St. Lucian subjects in his work. Sigrid Nama, Walcott’s partner since 1986, gives us added insight into Walcott’s character and then there are those comments from people who have worked with the Nobel Laureate including actress Natalie La Porte and Michelle Serieux, friend and actor Arthur Jacobs, as well as Walcott’s lifelong friend, Dunstan St. Omer. These reflections may only be a sentence or two but they speak volumes and serve to illuminate the man behind the pen-paintbrush.
“He is very, very silent,” La Porte states, “very low key”. Then there is a touch of brilliance from Serieux, “You look at his [Walcott’s] eyes and there’s a whole universe behind them” and continuing the theme of vision, Jacobs states: “The man [Walcott] sees more than what the average person sees in life.” It is Dunstan St. Omer, St. Lucia’s premier artist and designer of the island’s flag, who stresses Walcott’s loyalty to their island, stating: “… he has reached so far and he’s still so sensitive about his people.” These personal and informed perspectives go hand in hand with the anecdotes that serve to give us a deeper understanding of the Nobel Laureate. Perhaps one of my favourites comes from Serieux, who explains her interactions with Walcott during a location scout around St. Lucia.
Whilst driving around Rouseau Valley, he demands the vehicle is stopped. There, he observes the light across the valley, exclaiming “Could you ever leave this?” As Serieux puts it, Walcott was “moved almost to tears about how the light was falling on the valley.” It is little fragments like this that add another dimension to the documentary. Ida Does is not afraid to delve deeper and go beyond the usual biographical information and instead gives an enlightening balance, one made up of different voices, each one contributing to an intimate picture of Derek Walcott. Poetry is and Island is emotionally charged. As I watch the documentary I imagine a thin line running across the screen, rising and falling, like a seismograph measuring the earth’s vibrations. There are moments in the film where this (imaginary) line is off the scale, reaching higher than the island’s awe inspiring Pitons.
We see Arthur Jacobs moved to tears, speechless even, as he reads some of Walcott’s poetry, and then the writer himself reading from a section in Omeros that focuses on his late mother. Walcott stops and struggles to speak. And as he removes his glasses to wipe away the tears so too do I. But true to Walcott’s perseverance, he continues, finishing the extract in what makes a soul stirringly beautiful moment in the film.
These moments of sorrow are contrasted by moments of joy and testament to the director’s skill, a perfect balance has been struck in this documentary. For example, later on in Poetry is an Island the focus turns to Walcott’s birthday celebrations, where, accompanied by family and friends including the late Seamus Heaney, he travels by boat along the coast to Soufriere. In fact, it is from this trip that the image of Walcott that has been used in much of the promo material for the film came. Coupled with the quotation, ‘Poetry gives consolation’, the image comes to stand for everything that Walcott does. The birthday celebrations are particularly heartwarming and testament to the filming, the viewer feels a part of the goings-on. There is music, talking and laughing, food and drink, set against a stunning St. Lucian backdrop. There is even what seems like an impromptu poetry reading where Walcott asks fellow writers to recite a line or two (in whatever language they want) from a poem of their choice. Writers include Glyn Maxwell, who incidentally has just edited the most extensive compilation of Walcott’s poetry to date (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), Robert Antoni, Christian Campbell and the late Seamus Heaney, to name but a few. Noticeably moved to tears, Walcott closes the scene with a line from Ezra Pound’s The Cantos:‘is that not our delight to have friends come from far countries’ – an endearing sentiment indeed. The sequence flows seamlessly even though there are different languages and subjects…it is as if it was always meant to be that way.
Poetry is an Island, a documentary of just under 1 hour 20 minutes, ends as powerfully as it begins. Walcott’s reading in the final moments is truly evocative. The narrative has, in a sense, come full circle just like Walcott does in his writing or as his character Seven Seas puts it, ‘the slowly travelling hand / knows it returns to the port from which it must start’ (Omeros, 291). Walcott reads extracts from ‘The Light of the World’ (Arkansas Testament), leaving us with an everlasting, extra strong imprint, a thudding heartbeat, the illuminating core of a life dedicated to St. Lucia. I want to extend my gratitude to Ida Does, Rebecca Roos, and the entire production team, as well as to all those that donated to the Indiegogo campaign that helped finance Poetry is an Island. You have done a wonderful thing.
Dr. Leanne Haynes has recently finished a PhD at the University of Essex, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Her thesis focused on Saint Lucian literature and mapped out the island’s rich literary landscape. She also completed her MA (Postcolonial Studies) and BA (Literature) at the University of Essex.