By Robert Hass
October 5, 1997
Derek Walcott was born on the island of Santa Lucia in 1930 and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. It's always been hard to know how to describe him. Afro-Caribbean, the musical term, doesn't seem right. Part African, part I think Irish, a black man according to the tribal politics of the western hemisphere, he was educated in the English colonial tradition; his head and his poems are full of the rhythms of English poetry. He had to find his own way to make an American poetry, and he was not drawn, at least not directly, to the black poetics of French Caribbean poets like the Haitian Aimee Cesaire. Of the same generation as Allen Ginsberg and Frank O'Hara, his poetry seems classical in comparison. His task was to make a Caribbean poetry: an American poetry of the tropics, a region which might include in its literature, if you reimagine the map in your mind, William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

His new book, "The Bounty" (Farrar Straus Giroux), includes an elegy for his mother and a series of intensely imagined poems about his home place. Nostalgia is a tricky matter in poetry, in life. If it does not have an almost visionary intensity, the feeling can seem too easy. Here he holds it up to death and seems to locate his writing in the place between death and the intense presence of his native place. The poem is untitled.

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Anthony Russo
Illustration by Anthony Russo
By Derek Walcott

Never get used to this; the
  feathery, swaying casuarinas,
the morning silent light
  on shafts of bright grass,
the growing Aves of the ocean,
  the white lances of the marinas,
the surf fingering its beads, hail heron and
  gull full of grace,
since that is all you need to do now at your age
and its coming serene extinction like the light 
  on the shale
at sunset, and your gift fading out of this page;
your soul travelled the one horizon, like a 
  quiet snail,
infinity behind it, infinity ahead of it,
and all that it knew was this craft, all that 
  it wanted 
what did it know of death? Only what you had
  read of it,
that it was like a flame blown out in a 
  lowered lantern,
a night, but without these stars, the prickle of
  planets, lights
like a vast harbour, or devouring oblivion;
never get used to this, the great moon on these
  studded nights
that make the heart stagger; and the
  stirring lion
of the headland. This is why you have ended, 
  to pass,
praising the feathery swaying of the casuarinas
and those shudderings of thanks, that so often
the evening light in the shafts of feathery grass,
the lances fading, then the lights of the marinas,
the yachts studying their reflection in
  black glass.
"Never get used to this; the feathery, swaying casuarinas," from "The Bounty" by Derek Walcott.
Copyright 1997 by Derek Walcott.
Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.

Robert Hass, former poet laureate, is the author, most recently, of the collection "Sun Under Wood."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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