Articles

The Helen of the West Indies: Derek Walcott’s St. Lucia

by Gaurav Shah

I, with legs crossed along the daylight, watch
The variegated fists of clouds that gather over
The uncouth features of this, my prone island.

The prone island of St. Lucia (pronounced LOO-sha) in the Caribbean has been the source of inspiration for Nobel laureate Derek Walcott from the time he wrote the lines above at the age of 18. This small island (only 27 miles by 14 miles) has inspired a lifetime of poetry, including Omeros (1990), Walcott’s book-length poem consisting of 64 chapters in seven books, each filled with three-line stanzas.

Walcott was born in Castries, St. Lucia, in 1930 in a small house in the middle of a growing capital.  His mother, Alix Walcott, was a strong-willed woman who supported the family (which included Derek’s twin brother Roderick and their older sister Pamela) after the death of her husband Warwick a year later in 1931.

A teacher, Alix Walcott introduced her children to art, music, and poetry.  She gave the young Derek an exercise book in which to write his poetry.  Every night, she would also give him a poem to copy and imitate before going to bed, thus introducing Walcott to form, rhyme, prosody, English poetry, and Shakespeare. Walcott has credited her for his achievements, beginning with the $200 she provided (a princely sum in 1948) for the private publication of his first book Twenty Five Poems.

Subsequently, both Derek and Roderick pursued careers in poetry and drama.  Derek even formed the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959, which has staged his numerous plays.  Walcott (like his father) is also a painter; he has painted the covers of his books and the book-length poem Tiepolos Hound (2000) also includes 26 of his paintings.

Walcott’s poetry has been deeply autobiographical, using St. Lucia (and the Caribbean) as a metaphor for colonialism and imperialism, history and identity, and the sense of loss that emerges from exile. Omeros, for example, reworks Homer and the epics The Iliad and The Odyssey into a contemporary tale set in a fishing village in St. Lucia.  The characters reveal the effects of the Middle Passage and slavery, the British and French influences on the island, racism and identity, and the changes on the island through tourism. The narrator, Walcott himself, also grapples with the definitions of home and discussing his own split identity and heritage of Dutch, English, and African ancestry.

Several other books of poetry, The Fortunate Traveler (1981), Midsummer (1984), The Arkansas Testament (1987) discuss the two worlds he straddles: an outsider from the Caribbean striving to capture its beauty, landscape, and people, yet a teacher and poet in Boston and New York influenced by poets such as Robert Frost and W.H. Auden.  In Tiepolos Hound, Walcott tells the story of the impressionist painter Camille Pissaro, a Sephardic Jew who was brought up on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, but went to France in his mid-20s and helped change European art.  Walcott contrasts Pissaro’s life and work with his own story as an artist who was influenced by the Caribbean but also had to leave his Caribbean home to pursue his visions.

Today, it is hard to miss Walcott’s connection to the island–or even his face.  He has had a town square in the middle of Castries named after him as well as the national theater.  His face has appeared on the telephone directory, on stamps, and even on phone cards.  Newspapers often quote his views or comments on political matters, and he has been quite vocal about promoting local artists and writers and preserving old artistic traditions.

Any literary traveler can see the St. Lucian fishing villages Walcott has written about:  Soufriere (and its sulphur volcano), Canaries, Laborie, Anse La Raye, and Choiseul.  Visitors can go to the Friday night jump-up party in the town of Gros Ilet where, in Omeros, Hector and Achilles vie for Helen’s attention.  Seeing St. Lucia’s most prominent feature, the mountains of Gros Piton and Petit Piton, helps one understand what Walcott means by a horned island, or why its rainforests have made the island a place of light with luminous valleys.

The island offers enough sights to support its slogan of Simply Beautiful but finding the Walcott family home in Castries is a real adventure.

Finding 17 Chausse Road:

Our house with its bougainvillea trellises,
the front porch gone, was a printery.  In its noise
I was led up the cramped stair to its offices.

I saw the small window near which we slept as boys,
how close the roof was.  The heat of the galvanize.
A desk in my mother’s room, not that bed, sunlit,

with its rose quilt where we were forbidden to sit.

~ from Omeros

Chausse Road runs along the outside edge of the bustling and busy roads of Castries.  My wife and I began first at Derek Walcott Square, a rectangular plot of land enclosed by tall wrought-iron gates. It is flanked by two well-known landmarks: the Minor Basilica of Immaculate Conception to the east and the Carnegie Public Library to the northwest.  Once called Christopher Columbus Square, it was renamed after Walcott won the Nobel Prize.  Under a 400-year-old saman tree, there are two small busts: one of Walcott, and the other of Sir Arthur Lewis, who won the Nobel Economics Prize in 1979.  Today, many of the island’s activities, especially during the St. Lucia Jazz Festival, are held around the square.

Finding Chausse Road was easy; it is connected to many streets leading out from the square and the Castries central market.  Many of these streets were narrow with open gutters on either side, and crowded with street vendors and a constant flow of traffic.  Finding the Walcott family home was not easy, however.  We knew that the house had been converted to a printery and no longer had its bougainvillea trellises.  But the few people we asked were not aware about a printing shop on Chausse Road.  Most were unaware that Walcott once lived on the road; several pointed us to shops where we could inquire, but even this was not helpful.

Not surprisingly, there were no house numbers on the street. Homes are known through the people who reside in them or by local businesses.  We found 25 Chausse Road but couldn’t tell if the numbers went up or down the road.  Walking further south on the road, we found 35 Chausse Road.  Here, a man directed us towards where he thought there had been a printing shop, but he didn’t know where Number 17 was.

As we moved away from the central Castries area, more disappointment awaited. A security guard at a furniture store could not help us with locating Number 17 and, surprisingly, did not know the number of the furniture store either!

Thinking that we were perhaps walking in the wrong direction, we debated turning back or going further up the road. We saw an old lady coming towards us and hoped that she might remember the Walcott home. She did. She told us to keep walking further in the same direction and ask at a local bakery. She remembered a printing shop near the bakery that, she was almost sure, was the house the Walcotts lived in.

We reached the bakery and a few men told us that the printing shop (now closed) was next door.  The small, wooden house we saw was in need of serious repair.  The harsh sun, the yearly rains, and lack of proper care had made the house appear faded compared to the other houses on the street.

On the side of the house, behind an ornate iron gate, there was a small dark passage with overgrown vines and plants.  There was no sign or marker regarding any connection to Walcott, only a sheet with a phone number for any inquiries. We wondered: inquiries for the printing shop or, presumably, to just purchase the house? For a moment, we hesitated if this indeed was the house that Walcott lived in as a young boy, but the men’s confidence convinced us. Our appearance made several other men and boys appear. For a brief moment, talk centered on Walcott as several older men talked about Walcott and his contributions.  Many were glad we had come away from central Castries to find and photograph the house.

Walcott has remained an island boy his entire life despite living outside St. Lucia for years. He refuses to believe that he should have seen the world to become a better poet. Walcott has argued that he needs only St. Lucia.  In a conversation recorded in his book The Prodigal (2004), the narrator at first is chided for not seeing Paris. He is told that going to Paris will change his life. The narrator quickly responds:

I like my life.

You think here is enough?

For me it is.

Fine.

Anyway I can see Martinique from here.

Today, Walcott spends most of the year at Cap Estate in Gros Ilet, on the northwestern coast of St. Lucia, with views of the island of Martinique.  He also lives in New York when teaching a semester at Boston University.  He proudly claims in The Prodigal:

I lived in two villages: Greenwich and Gros Ilet,
and loved both almost equally.  One had the sea,
grey morning light along the waking water,
the other a great river . . .