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Rest In Peace

Derek Walcott’s elegy for America

The poet, playwright and 1992 Nobel laureate often wrote about colonialism and its aftereffects

In a 1968 conversation published in Caribbean Quarterly, poet Derek Walcott told interviewer Dennis Scott that he didn’t read poetry for pleasure.

“I read to be terrified in a way,” Walcott said, going on to express admiration for Boris Pasternak and Pablo Neruda as “people who terrify me from the size and grandeur of their imagination.”

Walcott, the West Indian poet and playwright who was awarded the 1992 Nobel prize for literature, died Friday at his home in Saint Lucia. He was 87. His publisher, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, confirmed the news on Twitter, writing “we are honored to have published his work.” Walcott had been ill for some time before his death. But he was terrifying and timeless in his own right and so through his work, lives on.

Love after Love remains the widespread favorite among many a Walcott fan, with its simple yet essential message advising kindness and patience for oneself post-heartbreak. But Walcott’s lyrical, prolific writing provided insights and metaphors for seemingly every situation. Recently, I was reminded of his 1968 poem Elegy when drilling resumed on the Dakota Access Pipeline and the debate over where it should run. (There are two Walcott Elegies. One is the 1968 poem, from The Gulf and Other Poems. The other, from White Egrets, was published in 2010 and is for poet Aimé Césaire, who died in 2008.) Walcott wrote about America and its many broken promises, whether they occurred in the form of broken treaties or the hollow assurances of an American dream equally attainable for everyone. Wrote Walcott:

Some splintered arrowhead lodged in her brain
sets the black singer howling in his bear trap
shines young eyes with the brightness of the mad,
tires the old with her residual sadness;
and yearly lilacs in her dooryards bloom,
and the cherry orchard’s surf
blinds Washington and whispers
to the assassin in his furnished room
of an ideal America, whose flickering screens
show, in slow herds, the ghosts of the Cheyennes
scuffling across the staked and wired plains
with whispering, rag-bound feet,
while the farm couple framed in their Gothic door
like Calvin’s saints, waspish, pragmatic, poor,
gripping the devil’s pitchfork
stare rigidly towards the immortal wheat.

Walcott had a way of swaddling his rage in phrases wound so elegantly you could get lost in their construction only to have them whip back around and smack you. Here he warned against the romanticization of rural agrarianism and the dangers of conflating it with moral superiority. The devil’s pitchfork indeed.

In Elegy, Walcott found common ground with Gordon Parks. Parks’ commentary on America and Grant Wood’s most famous painting in the form of his 1942 photograph of Farm Security Administration charwoman Ella Watson is visceral and immediate. Both he and Walcott wrestled with how Wood’s painting and its ascension to American iconography directly contradicted the experiences of people of color, be they black or Native American.

Walcott had a way of swaddling his rage in phrases wound so elegantly you could get lost in their construction only to have them whip back around and smack you.

It’s not just the expression on her face as Watson stares past the camera, her eyes slightly downcast. She’s alone in carving out her place in the country, not just in the image, but in life — Watson’s father was lynched and her husband was shot and killed. Furthermore, unlike the fabricated couple in Grant’s painting, who were modeled by the artist’s sister and dentist dressed up like “tintypes from my old family album,” as Grant described it, Watson, and her circumstances, are very much real.

In Elegy, Walcott wended his way through resigned disappointment, though his frustration with the lack of accountability for America’s atrocities was palpable, as evidenced by the end of the first stanza:

Still, everybody wants to go to bed
with Miss America. And if there’s no bread,
let them eat cherry pie.

Walcott used Wood’s mythical couple to punctuate his thoughts, ending on the “immortal wheat” that continues to bloat the world, whether it’s wanted or not.

His words, written on the day of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, and less than a year after the death of Che Guevara at the hands of Bolivian soldiers aided by American Green Berets and the CIA, are just as relevant today as they were in 1968. I imagine British Prime Minister Theresa May is gulping down quite a bit of cherry pie these days, particularly after President Donald Trump’s administration doubled down on its unfounded claims that Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ, its National Security Agency equivalent) wiretapped Trump Tower at then-President Barack Obama’s request. The “special relationship” must be preserved after all. In response to the claims, a spokesman for May simply told reporters Friday, “We have received assurances from the White House that these allegations would not be repeated.”

Walcott’s work, which spanned more than 50 years, ran the gamut of emotions and themes, but repeatedly coalesced around colonialism and its aftereffects. He was an inspiration to multiple generations, including Elizabeth Alexander, who read a poem at Obama’s first inauguration. In a 2010 interview with the Washington Post, Alexander recalled how she first dedicated herself to poetry after fancying herself a dancer for 15 years. She met Walcott, then a professor at Boston University, and shared with him with her notebook of “unclassified word clouds.” Walcott read, added line breaks, and informed Alexander she was a poet.

Walcott’s work ran the gamut of emotions and themes, but repeatedly coalesced around colonialism and its aftereffects.

Walcott, a MacArthur fellow and winner of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, began writing poetry at age 14. He was also an award-winning playwright, boasting more than 80 plays to his credit — he founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. His play Dream on Monkey Mountain, netted an Obie award for best foreign play in 1971. His 1990 epic poem Omeros, consisting of 64 chapters and seven “books,” with its loose allusions to Homer’s Iliad, was hailed as a postmodernist masterpiece.

In his Nobel prize acceptance speech, Walcott, who preferred to be known as a Caribbean writer, explained his philosophy about the art of the West Indies, including his own.

“Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole,” Walcott said. “The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture, those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral places. Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.