We were a mixed bunch of Walcott admirers entering Caribbean Cinemas last Friday evening to watch Poetry is an Island, the extraordinary documentary by Ida Does which had its premiere in late 2013 at TTFF.
Nasha remembered the Laureate hero’s return on a late LIAT flight in 1992; Kerwin, ten years younger and an aspiring writer himself, was keen to meet his hero again; my 17 year old son Dylan has had enough school experiences with annual Nobel Laureates’ Week to know who the great bard is, but admitted to knowing nothing of his work.
As for me, I cannot claim to have read more than superficially the poems and prose of Derek Walcott, for a very common reason, I’ve come to learn: intimidation. For if we’re honest, many of us are a little intimidated by the prodigious body of work, the reputation, the intellect, the man.
So it was an astonishing pleasure to see just how deeply impacted we all felt after watching 90 minutes of sumptuous visuals to a backtrack of Derek’s own sonorous, evocative voice. In Poetry is an Island, Walcott’s words paint a thousand more, while Saint Lucia is cinematically captured in an intimate, authentic light by Does, whose eye for detail shows the island in all its unique, imperfect glory.
This is not a biography of Saint Lucia’s Literature Laureate, although his childhood is spoken of extensively; the central theme is Walcott’s relationship with his island home, and director Ida Does had a very clear vision for Poetry is an Island.
“From the very start I knew that I wanted to film Derek there . . . in St. Lucia, because I expected (and hoped) to meet him ‘at ease’ in the place that he loved so much. I was curious to film the Saint Lucian landscape and to visit the villages that I had read about in Derek Walcott’s work . . . When I was there, it felt like I could literally touch Derek’s work, the heart of it. Which is what the film is all about.”
Clearly the seeds of Derek Walcott’s genius were sown by his artistic father who died very young, and his legendary mother, Teacher Alix, revered in the community, a stern disciplinarian and the literary nurturer who raised three kids in a tiny house on the Chaussee Road. He was encouraged to find his passion and he did so in painting and writing, displaying a disciplined work ethic and shrewd eye for business by getting mum to finance his first book of poems at age sixteen. He smiles mischievously, admitting he never paid her back the investment.
Perhaps even more revealing are the interviews with Walcott’s friends, family and students; the film’s richness comes from down to earth conversations with people who are close to the poet, like Arthur Jacobs, Dunstan St Omer, Natalie La Porte and Michelle Serieux. Proving that the creative apple does not fall far from the tree, Peter Walcott talks of growing up with
this force of artistic nature and the richness of a life impacted by his father’s global celebrity.
Tales laughingly told by childhood friends and candid character observations made by admiring mentees create a normality, a human character in reassuring contrast to the ceremonially-clad literary giant seen and heard in clips from the Nobel ceremony throughout the film. Through misted eyes, Walcott the Laureate becomes Derek the partner, drinking buddy, lifelong brother and friend. His curmudgeonly, often harsh demeanour is the veneer through which brilliance and perfection are shared with the student, as long as the student leaves their ego at the studio door and learns to listen.
As they read the poet’s words about themselves, the fascinating duality of Derek Walcott falls into place; their friend becomes their source of immortality as he describes Saint Lucian life in visceral, lyrical lines. “He made us poetry!” grins St Omer.
For me however, the most resonant image of the film is Walcott sitting solitary in a folding chair on Rat Island, talking about the gift given to him by government in honour of the Nobel Prize. Twenty-two years later it stands more derelict than it was. From the tiny sliver of sand he observes the coast of Choc Bay, from Labrelotte to Vigie. This undisputed national treasure sits on his island, detached from his island, Saint Lucian to his core but alien to his people, watching, thinking, observing, no doubt writing in his head, behind those inscrutable pale eyes.
It’s a melancholy ending to a beautiful cinematic work.
More sad than scandalous, the relentless ongoing lack of support for the arts by Saint Lucian government after Saint Lucian government is cause for national opprobrium and embarrassment—or should be. At 83, there are few people who are not in full grasp of their mortality, and never one to mince words, Walcott has gone on record saying: “My brother Roddy died working for the arts in Saint Lucia. He never saw a museum go up or a theatre go up. I suppose I too will die and not see it happen either—it is shameful.”
Perhaps the politicians are intimidated too, but that’s no excuse to waste another minute before creating a living, breathing tribute to a living, breathing legend—before it’s too late for him to enjoy it. Maybe they should have a look at the film. Poetry is an Island certainly cured my feeling of intimidation by bringing Derek Walcott’s words to life and placing them firmly in the context of Saint Lucia. Was it the impact of hearing the writer read his own work, or the subjects reading about themselves? Was it the hypnotic imagery of the island’s natural wonders, from Gros Islet fishing boats and kids playing on the beach to expansive azure horizons and “forests of history thickening with amnesia”?
As I ran to our island’s only bookstore to make up for lost time, I remembered one other quote from the Lucian bard: “The truest writers are those who see language not as a linguistic process but as a living element . . . ” Through Poetry is an Island, I finally made that connection with Derek Walcott’s words.