St. Lucia: an island made of words

The natural beauty of St Lucia won the island its old nickname, “Helen of the West Indies” — and has inspired generations of poets and artists, including Derek Walcott, Nobel laureate and St Lucia’s most famous son. Walcott’s poetry lives in the landscape, writes Vladimir Lucien, and vice versa, offering visitors a lyrical portrait of praise

The view from Pigeon Island across the causeway to Becune Point — current home of Nobel laureate Derek Walcott. Photograph ©ARGALIS/ISTOCK.COMPhotograph ©TUMPIKUJA/ISTOCK.COMThe names of St Lucia’s villages form a poetic litany. Photograph ©GRAFFIZONE/ISTOCK.COMDunstan St Omer’s famous altarpiece in the Roseau Valley Roman Catholic church. Photograph by Marion Nelson & Allen Sherman, St Lucia Oral HistorySt Lucia’s lush landscape has long inspired the island’s most famous poet, Nobel laureate Derek Walcott. Photograph ©STEVEGEER/ISTOCK.COMWalcott’s poem “Homecoming: Anse La Raye” describes the fishing village on St Lucia’s west coast. “Dazed by the sun / you trudge back to the village / past the white, salty esplanade . . .“. Photograph ©ORIREDMOUSE/ISTOCKPHOTO.COMFishermen’s jetty at Gros Islet. Photograph by Danielle DevauxDusk falls over Castries and Vigie. Photograph ©ARGALIS/ISTOCK.COM

. . . growths hidden in green darkness, forests
of history thickening with amnesia,
 
so that a man’s branched, naked trunk,
its roots crusted with dirt,
swayed where it stopped, remembering another name . . .

From Another Life, by Derek Walcott

 

I have always felt that in St Lucia you have a difficult time distinguishing yourself from the landscape. There are places here without the human stamp of broad sidewalks, gleaming street-signs, neon shop-signs, asphalt streets and lanes busy with commerce, all the tracery and sculpted stone that have come to suggest “history.” Rather, we have a small city (by its own proportions), one or two other towns, mountains exploding with greenery, villages — many of which are “stricken,” as the island’s Nobel laureate puts it, “with a single street.” There are the modern conveniences that one requires, but there is also an abiding sense that the landscape still reigns supreme.

It does not surprise, though, that this island evoked in the heart of a young prodigy “of the wrong age and colour” the desire to weep, as he bore the weight of such a place, not thoroughly claimed by man, nor by the proliferating shadows of the forest, nor by the sea, nor by its “bugle-coloured light.” This island which — as children are taught to recite by rote — was “seven times British and seven times French.” This island named after a blind saint, nicknamed after Helen of Troy. This island of the mountain named La Sorcière (The Witch), and the valley named Mabouya after an Amerindian deity, so long after the Amerindians walked into another life. This island of so much impalpable, gossamer history, this island of so vivid a landscape — so much light, and the green darkness. So thoroughly unclaimable, yet so entirely alluring.

It does not surprise, either, that this island inspired in a young Derek Walcott, the writer, and his friend Dunstan St Omer, the hoary-voiced painter, the solemn promise to never leave until they “had put down, in paint, in words, as palmists learn the network of a hand, / all of its sunken, leaf-choked ravines” — as indeed they both have. Walcott has stubbornly clung to a way of framing nature (and his craft) in a religious light: as a benediction, as a bearer of signs. That primeval astonishment — a mind ravished perpetually not merely by nature, but by this particular piece of earth — is perhaps pagan, perhaps not, but ultimately it is affecting and many times beautiful. It may explain why Walcott, though raised a Methodist, was paradoxically drawn to Roman Catholic iconography: its golden vegetation of monstrances, chalices, the dangling fruit of the thurible.

St Lucia — with its various nuances of green, its almost melodramatic topography, seas of so many blues, like a play on the colour “blue” itself — for these very reasons, was the poet’s heaven. He has cast himself by turns as a Crusoe and an Adam — both of whom experience the landscape as something still unconquerable and enrapturing:

These palms are greater than Versailles,
for no man made them,
their fallen columns greater than Castille,
no man unmade them . . .

From “Names”

No poet has written about the land as Derek Walcott has, with an almost agricultural acuity. And as if in gratitude, for everyone who has read Walcott, the island has remade itself in the image and likeness of his verse. The unclaimed, untamable island has been versified, formed. A poem like “Return to D’Ennery; Rain” captures the blanched desolation and melancholy of one of St Lucia’s east coast villages:

The coast shudders with every surge. The beach
Admits a beaten heron. Filth and foam.
There is a belt of emerald light, a sail
Plunges and lifts between the crests of reef . . .

These fragrant lines from “Cul de Sac Valley” give a snapshot of that silent yet interesting conversation between sky, weather, climate, and the land, making the sky almost as tangible as a piece of the island itself:

Like the lost idea
of the visible soul . . .
blue smoke climbs far
up, its vein unveering,
from that ochre scar
of a charcoal clearing.

Crusted clouds open
like the pith of loaves
in a charred clay oven
wrapped in fig leaves

In Walcott’s poems, we come across a different type of tourism: a thicker, truer brochure of the island alive with its tensions, the restlessness of its colours, the equanimity of its breeze. Accurate and detailed close-ups contrast with a startling aerial view of St Lucia, in his suite of modernist sonnets “Tales of the Islands”, which makes even leaving seem worthwhile and beautiful, if only for such a view:

                                                  . . . the fine
Writing of foam around the precipices, then
The roads as small and casual as twine
Thrown on its mountains; I watched till the plane
Turned to the final north and turned above
The open channel with the grey sea between
The fisherman’s inlets until all that I love
Folded in cloud . . .

Walcott’s poetry is for the tourist who cares for the deeper meaning of tourism: the age-old kind of contact between ordinary persons of different backgrounds, different realities, in which the stranger is taken through the reality of that new place. And if this tourist is lucky enough, he or she will be ravished by the beautiful words of one whose heart is involved, submerged in that reality — a heart that knows the tourist may never be able to feel exactly as he feels entirely, but believes nonetheless in sharing. There is so much that will remain unsaid, and even these omissions must be done beautifully. For isn’t art a kind of tourism of the heartland, the mindscape?

 

The sight in earliest Walcott of “fishermen rowing homeward in the dusk,” in Castries harbour or anywhere else on the island, is as poignant now as it must have been then. Sometimes the poet grows garrulous, and the images, the words gush forth like the Troumasse River over the pliant snags of commas:

O clear, brown tongue of the sun-warmed, sun-wooded Troumassee
of laundresses and old leaves, and winds that buried their old
songs in archives of bamboo and wild plantain, their white sails
bleached and beaten on dry stone, the handkerchiefs of adieux
and ba-bye! O sea, leaving your villages of cracked mud and
    tin, your
chorus of bearded corn in tragic fields . . .

I find myself constantly returning to Walcott through the landscape itself. Like when I drive out to the beach at Vigie to read (something other than his work), with Martinique “in the haze of my mind.” The sun, past its apogee, begins to descend, and I see “the noon’s stunned amethystine sea”. Or when I return to my childhood, and those trips to the barber whom I shared with the Great Man in Gros Islet, and I see again “the old fences in the village street and the flowers / brimming over the rusted zinc fences,” with “a sheen like a visible sigh.” This experience of the landscape through Walcott conspires to form a kind of déjà vu that lasts. Sometimes I find myself reciting a line — or, more precisely, an image — softly as I see it, like a point ringing true in an argument.

It is through Walcott that, whenever I am at the beach at sunset, I wait to see “the green flash, like a lizard’s tongue / catch the last sail” through the “whisky-coloured light.” From the Pigeon Island Causeway on an evening, I glance at the Master’s house at nearby Becune Point, where I know that it is always dawn in his notebooks. I imagine him fulfilling that wish, that one thing he wanted to do, did, and has always done, above all things: writing “verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight, / Cold as the curled wave.”

 

A green world . . .

Exploring St Lucia through the words of its most famous poet.

                               . . . there are the days
when every street corner rounds itself into
a sunlit surprise, a painting or a phrase,
canoes drawn up by the market, the harbour’s blue
the barracks. So much to do still, all of it praise.

The old Castries of Walcott’s youth was changed irrevocably by a catastrophic 1948 fire, but a handful of older buildings at the city’s southern end still preserve a characteristic nineteenth-century architecture of overhanging balconies and fretwork. Derek Walcott Square, with the Roman Catholic Cathedral on one side and the city’s main library on the other, boasts a bust of the Nobel laureate.

All day I wish I was at Cas-en-Bas,
passing incongruous cactus which grows in the north
in the chasm-deep ruts of the dry season
with the thunderous white horses that dissolve in froth . . .

Sheltered by a reef, the broad bay of Cas-en-Bas on the wilder Atlantic coast is a short drive from the popular tourist area of Rodney Bay — but can feel a world away.

The chapel, as the pivot of this valley
round which whatever is rooted loosely turns —
men, women, ditches, the revolving fields
of bananas, the secondary roads —
draws all to it, to the altar
and the massive altarpiece,
like a dull mirror, life
repeated there . . .

As described in Walcott’s poem “For the Altarpiece of the Roseau Valley Church, St Lucia”, the beloved mural painted by Dunstan St Omer for this rural church celebrates the lives and labours of ordinary St Lucians.

Soufrière, where
the raw
sore of the volcano chafes . . .
Under the Pitons, the green
bay, dark as oil.
Breasts of a woman, serenely rising.

On the island’s south-western coast, the small town of Soufrière is named for the nearby volcanic Sulphur Springs. In the background, the twin Pitons — volcanic peaks rising abruptly from the sea — are St Lucia’s most recognisable icons, and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

. . . all of the sounds of evening fell on velvet,
the night was polishing star after star,
the mild magnificent night with all its studs on,
buttoned and soldierly, with nowhere to march.

Vigie, the small peninsula sheltering Castries to the north, was the home of Walcott’s first love, immortalised in his long autobiographical poem Another Life. Its slopes are scattered with the ruined barracks of the British and French military forces which fought over St Lucia for centuries.