For Derek Walcott, from Chicago by Dipika Mukherjee

On June 6, 2013, the Poetry Foundation in Chicago hosted the Chicago segment of the Poetry Society of America's 2013 national series, Yet Do I Marvel: Black Iconic Poets of the Twentieth Century. I spoke about Derek Walcott's poetry influencing my own creativity.

I chose to speak about Derek Walcott, for Chicago is as much home to me as is Kuala Lumpur and New Delhi, so I chose Walcott, another nomad poet, who writes about exile and politics and a post-colonial identity in a voice resonant with many languages. He claims the brilliance of a monsoon sky while in the bonechilling winds of an American winter. Although Walcott is of a generation earlier than mine his concerns remain relevant to the generation that comes after me. The world still remains divided by wars, endangered by racial violence and religious distrust...and still, driven by greed.

There were years when I could not write creatively at all...except for poetry. In my twenties, as a young mother of two little boys, while straining to complete a PhD in an alien city in Texas, I read Walcott's poetry and wrote my own. I am aware of the charges of sexual harassment plaguing Walcott's career and they make me very uncomfortable as a woman and a poet. But it is also true that he influenced my early writing in a way that is undeniable.

Walcott’s sensibility, as he speaks of the Caribbean, Africa, Europe and America with equal familiarity, negotiating the difficult and often dangerously fraught spaces in between, spoke to me. In A Far Cry From Africa he wrestles with writing in the colonial language:

...I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?
Walcott’s poems sing, even when they are full of pain. As a child, I was brought up on Bengali poetry written by another Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, whose poems are literally sung in the homes of West Bengal and of Bangladesh; even the Bengali diaspora sings this poetry. I grew up with an appreciation of the musicality of poetry, but from poets like Walcott and Tagore, I learned how to form words to be the change in this world, to create beauty even when there is great despair. Years later, at an APWT literary festival in Thailand, I would heard Kim Jong Il’s former court-poet read a poem about a woman selling her daughter in a marketplace (the child is bought by a soldier), and it moved the jaded international audience in a way news reports rarely do. At a literary festival in Myanmar, fiery poet-monks in red spoke about the value of poetry in challenging notions of nationalism.

It is impossible to talk of Walcott without Omeros. For six years I worked in Leiden, an ancient cobblestoned city of poetry, the birthplace of Rembrandt. Poems in different languages are inscribed on street corners, and on the walls of the KITLV library I would come face to face with these lines from Omeros every single day:

In this, there is the heart of an exile, the enchantment of a journey, the simple joys of land and sea over the trappings of entrenched power. My first poetry book is titled “The Palimpsest of Exile”.

In my own nomadic journey, I have found Chicago In Walcott’s, Midsummer Poems:

Chicago’s avenues, as white as Poland.
A blizzard of heavenly coke hushes the ghettos.
The scratched sky flickers like a TV set.

New Delhi’s summer-to-monsoon season is in these words from The Prodigal:

... Things burn for days . . .
then the rain begins to come in paragraphs
and hazes this page, hazes the grey of islets,
the grey of eyes, the rainstorm’s wild-haired beauty

Now that Walcott is gone, I think of White Egrets, a remarkable book written when he was 80. The last poem in White Egrets is Untitled, as death tends to be, reducing us all to a memory to be slowly erased. But Walcott’s words sing of the resurgent creative power of the word, the sheer magic of creating a vision on white paper with only black lines and creating a “self-naming” universe as real as the one we live in, with clouds and mountains and villages:


...and the whole self-naming island, its ochre verges,
its shadow-plunged valleys and a coiled road
threading the fishing villages, the white, silent surges
of combers along the coast, where a line of gulls has arrowed
into the widening harbour of a town with no noise,
its streets growing closer like a print you can now read,
two cruise ships, schooners, a tug, ancestral canoes,
as a cloud slowly covers the page and it goes
white again and the book comes to a close.

I end here, on this resounding tribute to the immortality of the word, of poetry. There can be no death here, no silence.

Dipika Mukherjee’s second novel, Shambala Junction, will be released in the US in April 2017; it won the Virginia Prize for Fiction (Aurora Metro, 2016). Her debut novel, was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, republished as Ode to Broken Things (Repeater, 2016), and is available in bookstores now. It is being released as an Audible book on March 28, 2017. 


Enid Richemont said…
Not familiar with this work, so thank you so much for the introduction. Amazing words.
Susan Price said…
I echo Enid. Thanks to you, Dipika and also to Sandra, for the pieces about this wonderful poet. I don't read a lot of poetry and although I'd heard of Walcott, hadn't read anything by him. Your pieces made me do so and he really is remarkable. How does he make simple words on paper so beautiful?
Thank you Enid & Susan. I wish I could write about the problems I have with the sexual harassment charges as well as his genius, but I skirt around the difficult parts. Here is a gorgeous "memoir" which appears in the new Yorker, written by a friend and that too does not go where it gets murky:
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you for this beautiful, moving tribute, Dipika.

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