Light of the World: In Memory of Derek Walcott

“I must do something,” Ms. Ezersky would say, whenever she got word of a friend’s death during our Russian lessons. Many of her friends were well-known artists in exile; she’d interviewed almost every famous Russian you could imagine and covered Joseph Brodsky’s memorial at St. John the Divine. Often, she’d stay up late writing tributes for the New Russian Word or one of the papers she wrote for in New York.

A few days ago, the world lost Derek Walcott, a Nobel Laureate and one of the greatest writers of the last century. Much has been written about his career; many tributes have appeared over the weekend, urging us to remember him and revisit his work. It’s a profound loss–one that also struck me personally. I first met Derek when I was 22 years old and had started the graduate program in poetry at Boston University. The first question he always asked students–and pretty much anyone else–was: “where are you from?” He loved that I was a Jersey girl; he wanted us all to write about where we were from and what we really knew. (For our final class he had us write short plays in verse and brought in actors to do cold readings; Derek encouraged me to write a scene from the Jewish-Italian deli where I worked summers.) He had a way of sizing people up, seeing exactly who and what they were in a heartbeat, and often didn’t even know themselves.

Derek could be terrifying. He made us recite poems on command and carried himself like royalty. I’ve met very few people in my life with that level of presence. He had no tolerance for putting on airs, or chatter. Sometimes he’d cast aside whole sheafs of our poems, saying nothing but “this is a lie.” Somehow, this encouraged me, rather than scaring me away. He also laughed a lot and loved parties, often inviting us all to the pub across the street. It’s not an exaggeration to say that many of his students and friends orbited him like small galaxies. He drew in people who loved literature for the sake of it–it was about the joy of real work. You could sense his irritation whenever people asked for advice about publishing or how to succeed as a writer. He always said the same thing: “Read the masters. Do your work.” He lived and breathed all the poetry he taught us–Auden, Crane, Edward Thomas–and expected us to do the same by memorizing great poetry. In this way, Derek was like a father to me, just by being himself. I understood from him that the world’s oldest, richest traditions were always available to me, if I made the effort to learn them and make them part of my everyday life.

He continued to be a very real presence over the years: Derek introduced me to my husband and several lifelong friends. (Most of the time, we just dropped whatever we were doing when he came to town, to attend his readings and the dinners or parties that unfolded over several days–that’s what you did with him. He asked me to come to his classes at NYU even when I wasn’t a student–he kept poetry alive in our lives like that, reminding us who we were. I sat beside him at countless dinners from his old West Village haunt Ennio and Michael’s and El Quijote at the Chelsea Hotel to the Russian Samovar, co-owned by Brodsky. He always wanted to see new poems; we sometimes met at the Thai restaurant by his apartment off Christopher Street, or a nearby bakery just to sit and have a cookie. (I airmailed sugar-free cupcakes to St. Lucia for his birthday one year.) Once, I ran out of his office in a rage when he asked about my boyfriend at the time; then, again when he told me never to get married because it’d ruin my poetry. He never flinched at these outbursts, and usually just laughed, even when I had the audacity to tell him I didn’t like his friend Ted Hughes’ translation of Ovid. It made him happy whenever I recited Woman at the Washington Zoo or the Fall of Rome at parties; he never seemed to get tired of it. Derek liked hearing the same old jokes, and was spot-on with his sense of humor. When I was pregnant with my son, he greeted me with: “You look like an older, plumper version of Gidget.” The closest I ever felt to him wasn’t in person, but when I read his entire Collected Poems over many long days of driving through Rajasthan, feeling unspeakably homesick.

The last time I saw him was when he read Light of the World to a packed house at the 92nd St Y. I helped him with his jacket in a hallway and knew it’d be the last time. I hear him in Bob Marley, especially in the line from No Woman, No Cry: “remember when we used to sit in the government yard in Trenchtown.” It was one of his favorite all-time lines. The morning Derek died, I was at the Kitano Hotel for a private Japanese tea ceremony; it was a rare honor to sit with a 15th generation tea master, drink matcha from 500-year-old handmade cups and eat sweets shaped like flowers, sprinkled with gold. I felt the presence of this bittersweet tradition very keenly; it was “astonishing” as Derek liked to say. I saw the note about him while waiting for the subway, and listened to Redemption Song when I got home, crying while my baby daughter slept–not just for the loss but for the greatness. I think that’s what he wanted most for us–to be at home in ourselves and at ease with life’s magnitude, to be like “children, casual as birds.”

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