Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson on Derek Walcott: “West Indian literature had arrived on two words.”


“’Blown canes.’ Those were his first words to mark me,” recalls the Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson in the current New York Times Book ReviewHe continues:

“Like any true discovery, they came tangled in myth. I was about 16, a sixth former at Titchfield, my high school on a peninsula in Port Antonio, a town on the northeastern coast of Jamaica. Almost daily, for my last thing after school, I went to the town’s library. Once inside, I was at sea, isolated, but not alone.”

Son of Jamaica

The myth of evening: porous light aslant a single bookshelf labeled West Indian Literature. Was it new? I had never, impossibly, seen it before. I picked up the first book at hand, the soft-covered, fading Caribbean Writers Series Heinemann of Derek Walcott’s “Selected Poetry,” edited by Wayne Brown, a Trinidadian poet and critic. I opened to the lines, “Where you are rigidly anchored, / the groundswell of blue foothills, the blown canes.” A sort of force triggered in me at “blown canes” that fogged my eyes. I stood, rigidly anchored. West Indian literature had arrived on two words.

With a backlog of work on my desk, Hutchison’s tribute for the Nobel poet of Saint Lucia, who died last March, struck a familiar chord. In moments  of panic, hurry, confusion, and deadlines, I often think of the beauty of the Caribbean, and my long absence from its white sand and sapphire sea, and the dead quiet of a long empty coastline of Ocho Rios I remember.

Hutchinson eventually got to know the poet whose lines that mesmerized him as a teenager. He quotes a dozen lines from Walcott’s “The Schooner Flight,” then adds:

Son of Saint Lucia

The lines are not the most famous. Yet I hear in them the sonic, somber complement to the credo Walcott makes in his Nobel lecture: “Poetry is an island that breaks away from the main.” The vernacular of the lines shelters me into a manifold self. It is the cadence of experience that performs the gathering, a healing, to use a line from “The Bounty,” of “our blown tribes dispersing over the islands.”

Blown tribes. Schoolchildren in uniform, market people, the posh dignitaries, friends from distant countries, daughters, granddaughters, even the wandering tourists — they were all there, the disparate tribes all gathered on the day of his funeral. Where else? Everywhere else. In every nook of private homes pierced by his poetry.

Read the whole thing here.

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