Derek Walcott reads at NYPL.org
“Hemingway and the Caribbean”
“Here at sunrise on the island fifty years ago, I imagined thoughts of my first love, Anna,
awaking. When the oil-green water flows but doesn’t catch, only its burnish, something
wakes me early, draws me out breezily to the pebbly shelf of shallows, where the water
chuckles and the ribbed boats sleep like children, buoyed on their creases. I have nothing
to do. The burnished kettle is already polished to see my own blush burn, and the last
thing the breeze needs is my exhilaration.
I shall make coffee.
The light, like a fiercer dawn,
will singe the downy edges of my hair,
and the heat will plate my forehead till it shines.
Its sweat will share the excitement of my cunning.
Mother, I am in love.
Harbour, I am waking.
I know the pain in your budding, nippled limes,
I know why your limbs shake, windless, pliant trees.
I shall grow gray as this light.
The first flush will pass.
But there will always be morning,
and I shall have this fever waken me
whoever I lie to, lying close to, sleeping
like a ribbed boat in the last shallows of light.
“Let’s go for a little walk,” she said, one afternoon. “I’m in a walking mood.” Near the
lagoon, dark waters’ lens had made the trees one wood, arranged to frame this pair whose
pace unknowingly measured the loss. Each face was set towards its character. Where they
now stood, others before had stood. Same lens, island, the repeated wood, then each one
the self-delighting self-transfiguring stone stare of the demigod. Stunned by their images
they strolled on, content that the black film of water kept the print of their locked images
when they passed on.
Which of them in time would be betrayed was never questioned by that poetry which
breathed within the evening naturally, but by the noble treachery of art that looks for fear
when it is least afraid, that cordially takes the pulse-beat of the heart in happiness but
praises the need to die to the bright candor of the evening sky that preferred love to
immortality. So every step increased that subtlety which hoped that their two bodies
could be made one body of immortal metaphor. The hand she held already had betrayed
them both by its longing for describing her.
Here is Anna, recently, after a visit. Sixty years after. In my wheelchair in the Virgin
lounge in Beaufort, I saw her sitting in her own wheelchair, her beauty hunched like a
crumpled flower, the one who I thought was the fire of my young life would do her duty
to be golden and beautiful and young forever even as I aged. She was treble-chinned, old,
her devastating smile was netted in wrinkles, but I felt the fever briefly returning as we
sat there, crippled, bearing time and the life of general pleasantries. Small waves still
break against a small stone pier where a boatman left me in the orange diesel dusk a halfcentury
ago. Maybe happier being erect, she like a deer in her shyness, I stalking her an
impossible consummation. Those who knew us knew we would never be together, at
least not walking.
With the silent knives from the intercom went through me. Over the years as I traveled, I
found myself confirming cities and places that I had read in Hemingway, Miami, Venice,
Key West, Bimini, Madrid, Pamplona. Doing things that were in the books such as eating
lamb ribs barbequed on pine branches in an awful place with a noise and a river like a
dam, not in the spirit of literary pilgrimage, but every city authenticated his prose. Here is
Barcelona, which I came to late, its roofs and streets rhyming with its name.
There was a roar outside like a rocket arching over the roofs this morning. Then under the
black iron balconies, a brass band marching, detonated for some saint or labor union,
defending Catalonia with civic thunder. You smiled down at them with their banners and
sashes, but all you did in Barcelona was cough like one of those veterans with mournful
moustaches left over from the civil war. That is not enough for such a great city, but you
take time in portions, one cough at a time, your personal thunder that turns compassionate
heads. What I had waited for was for the name to be a banner over every street,
crucifixions and velvets, candles and purple crepe, for the crowd in the plaza to leap to its
feet and the flourish and trembling stasis of the matador’s cape. I could never join in the
parade, I can’t walk fast. Such is time’s ordinance. Lungs rattle, eyes that run, now
Barcelona is part of my past.
We know Hemingway’s reputation was that of a writer in exile. The setting of most of his
fiction had been in Europe, in Spain and Italy, now he showed that he could write about
our country to which his prose belonged. To Have and Have Not was political and leftist,
his piratical hero was a loner and apart from the rich in the marinas of Key West and
Miami. Harry Morgan, his parallel in another aspect of the book was Richard Gordon,
also a writer, the Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, who is now morally impotent
despite his big-game hunting. Richard Gordon’s wife abuses him in the same terms as his
wife does Macomber. The rich in their yachts and the maritime in their marinas rock in
Richard Gordon says, “You’re married to me.” “Not really, not in the church, you
wouldn’t marry me in the church and it broke my poor mother’s heart, as you well know.
I was so sentimental about you. I would break anyone’s heart for you. My, I was a damn
fool. I broke my own heart too. It’s broken and gone. Everything I believed in and
everything I cared about I left for you because you were so wonderful and you loved me
so much that love was all that mattered. Love was the greatest thing, wasn’t it? Love was
what we had that no one else had or could ever have and you were a genius and I was
your whole life. I was your partner and your little black flower. Slop. Love is just another
dirty lie. Love is ergoapiol pills to make me come around because you were afraid to
have a baby. Love is quinine and quinine and quinine until I’m deaf with it. Love is that
dirty aborting horror that you took me to. Love is my insides all messed up. It’s half
catheters and half whirling douches. I know about love. Love always hangs behind the
bathroom door. It smells like Lysol. To hell with love. Love is you making me happy and
then going off to sleep with your mouth open while I lie awake all night afraid to say my
prayers even because I know I have no right to any more. Love is all the dirty little tricks
you taught me that you probably got out of some book. All right. I’m through with you
and I’m through with love. Your kind of pick-nose love. You writer.”
YOU SHOULD NOT JUDGE; YOU SHOULD UNDERSTAND.
“Write hard and clear about what hurts.”
WE ARE ALL BROKEN, THAT’S HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN.
“Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it–don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist–but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.”
“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”