THEIR TOWN | People We Like and the Places They Love

Derek Walcott: A Poet's Ode to St. Lucia

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 19, 2003

Inside Derek Walcott's St. Lucia home, an inviting cottage filled with books, wood sculptures and photographs, the most striking object is a painting of a beach scene. The subjects -- caramel-colored children munching watermelon, elegant women dappled by sunlight, robust men quaffing rum -- are captured in a moment of pure Caribbean bliss.

Before I could ask the poet about it, he was telling me about the places he likes best on St. Lucia, the island where he was born and where, as a lanky adolescent, he first began the writings that would eventually earn him the Nobel Prize in literature in 1992.

There's the town of Dennery, where in the yellow wooden cottage of his Aunt Grace, he read Walt Whitman and scribbled verses in a loose-leaf notebook. The Vigie Harbor, near the ragtag capital of Castries, where he ferried across the waters to visit a girlfriend on one of the small coastal islands. Certain parts of Castries, where he and his childhood friend Dunstan St. Omer, an acclaimed local artist still living in St. Lucia, studied painting together.

I thought I knew St. Lucia well. On earlier visits, I had taken full advantage of the attractions on this mountainous, 238-square-mile island. I had hiked the Pitons, the twin peaks that tower grandly over the southern tip. I'd listened to musicians shake the trees with their saxes and trombones on Pigeon Island, the setting of the island's annual jazz festival. I'd toured the smoldering volcano and the stunning tropical flora in the Diamond Botanical Gardens. And I had found my way to a pub or two in Castries for the requisite glass of Crystal rum.

But on my most recent visit, in July, Walcott had agreed to talk about his favorite haunts. For years, I've admired the poet's ability to capture the post-colonial tensions, the odd combination of brutality and sensuality in the landscapes and people, and other peculiarities of Caribbean life. The author of 17 books of poetry, 30 plays and countless essays, the affable 73-year-old is considered a voice of wisdom throughout the islands.

Although he lives mostly in the United States these days, Walcott keeps a home in St. Lucia and returns often. Over a lunch of baked fish and avocados on his veranda, and later in his garden, he shared his thoughts on the island. As he talked, the gray-haired, soft-spoken Walcott seemed to measure the cadence and rhythm of his words. His German-born companion, Sigrid, wandered in and out, bringing refreshments or punctuating a thought with her own observations.

"There are a lot of beautiful places in the Caribbean," he said. "What makes St. Lucia special is its complexity. Part of it is the diverse landscape -- the mountains, valleys and culture of the sea. Part of it is in its bilingualism; people intertwine French Creole with English in a magical, remarkable way. And then there are the customs and the African mythology that one finds here."

A student of colonial history, Walcott favors the areas on the island where it comes alive most vividly. Walcott was born in Castries and received a British-style education at St. Mary's College there, studying Shakespeare and other classic authors. Later, studies and jobs led him to Jamaica and Trinidad. He is a mix of black, Dutch and English ancestry, and his writing reflects the traditions of each of those cultures, as well as that of the Caribbean.

Walcott moved to the United States in the early 1980s, where he became a professor of writing at Boston University. He is currently on leave. "Teaching is fine there," he said. "But the Caribbean is where I live."

Walcott recommended visiting Pigeon Island, a fortress at the northern tip that's scattered with barracks and garrisons built by British troops as they grappled with the French for control of the island. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the island changed hands between the two powers 14 times before London wrested control in 1814. Since 1979, it has been an independent state of the British Commonwealth. Another beloved Walcott locale is the Vigie barracks, a military installation built in the late 1800s and well-preserved by the St. Lucia National Trust.

Walcott also stresses the island's African heritage. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Europeans established sugar plantations on the island and imported slaves from West Africa to work on them. As a result, 90 percent of the population of 170,000 has African roots, and the traditions of Mother Africa are deeply felt, particularly in the music and wood carvings produced by locals.

More recently, Walcott's fascination has turned to the city of Soufriere, the setting for the film production of his 1957 play "Ti-Jean and his Brothers" by his company, Warwick Productions, and the New York company Kaufman Films. The movie will feature an all-Caribbean cast, with a Soufriere schoolboy in the lead role. Shooting is scheduled to start next year.

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