The crickets here at Rodney Bay sound all night like an unoiled iron gate swivelling back and forth, on its hinges, in the wind. There is the occasional cricket with a bell in its throat and another that rasps and wheezes. What is absent is the bullfrog, croaking, calling with the kind of zest that is both frustration and desperation for a female.
Just north of us there is Gros Islet. And down the road Castries. De la Croix square in Castries has the feel of Africa, men and women walking at a pace that is between ambling and indolence. Several men are sitting on the low walls, shooting breeze as the Americans would say. Not far from here in a corner of the craft market, men again but this time playing dominoes. Same difference!
The Derek Walcott square is next to the Roman Catholic cathedral. It is enclosed and shut. Sadly we are unable to get in close to the busts of Walcott and Lewis in the centre. All around, people are carrying on as usual. Children in uniforms coming back from school, young couples, middle aged women already turning into a display of fat, a lot of elderly women with grey hair, slender ankles, and severe faces. Behind one of the stalls, an archetypal Caribbean grandmother is reading her Bible, probably the Book of Revelations, as she is close to the end.
Castries is bustling but not rich. The port is a natural bay. On the encircling amphitheatre, the hills rise up, a cauldron of green baize, roof tiles rust brown in the sun. The sea here is swimming pool blue. An outsized cruise ship has weighed anchor and towers over everything in its sights. It is disproportionately huge as if an Alien vessel had not reconciled itself to the natural contours and girth of earthlings. So that it stands out, sore and embarrassing, in the heat of mid afternoon August.
The natural beauty of the island is indisputable. The elegance and style of the population, too, is definitive. There are slender girls who look as if a puff of breeze would do for them. The arms long and the lower limbs, necks like stalks, gazelle-like. But there are also some powerful women, squat with broad shoulders and hardly an inch of neck. Built like Picasso, for bull fighting, that is for courage and fearlessness.
Out for the day on a boat to Soufriere, we stopped at Marigot Bay. It is an inlet that is picture postcard in every direction. But it is the sea itself that is most spectacular. From the open sea inwards the colour changes from turbid silver through green, jade, blue black to aquamarine blue. And facing out to sea, the horizon shimmers and the sun lights up a white mercury sheen that is a song that hangs tremulous on the tongue.
The road from the quays at Soufriere climbed quickly uphill along a ribbon that had been casually tossed on the cliffside and that clung to it as if the thorn trees had gripped it tight against even the wild impossible wind.
On either side of this narrow road, houses crammed together, front doors opening out unto the road. Balustrades, verandas, ornamental grills, and doorways that cried out to be distinctive in colour, design or whatever. These balustrades were a baroque orchestration of ornamental flourishes: grace notes, breve, accidentals, minims, solidified in concrete or wood. These houses would not be misplaced in any Ekiti village. The same up, up, upwardness of hills, the same slow desultory amble of the women in the midday sun, the same blue uniformed children just out from school, the same background of hills and rocks, of forest, of flamboyant and bougainvillea, of cocoa swiftly seen in the passing aperture. Exora, oleander, bird of paradise lilies, puffball flowers, ginger lily, both in disorder and systematically cultivated are everywhere. In Ekiti, there is no sea!
The smell of sulphur hangs in the air in Soufriere. Like at Rotorua. Mud vents, hot springs, steam, and talk of healing properties, of special powers, of curative and restorative energies. If not for the rotten eggs it would be bewitching.
And then the Pitons, petit Piton and Gros Piton, like two brothers standing out to sea.
An elderly lady asked me if I was from St Lucia. I told her no, then she said you look as if you are. I replied that yes, I’ve noticed that a lot people here look as if they’re from my part of Africa. And, they do. The classical Yoruba face slopes forwards and downwards, the eyelids drooping as if drunken on nectar or half-asleep, and the neck curved and fine. The models are abundant here. It is as if the past was preserved fast and then improved upon. The eyelids shut slowly, for shyness, coquettish butterfly wings that flap shut, touch and then open to the surprise of glistening white eyeballs. You should see the teeth in their ivory whiteness.
You can see why Walcott’s poetry is about loss: potential loss, what is already lost, and about grief and the stubbornness of memory. Uprooted from Africa, deprived of the rootedness of language save English, fearful that this island will change, and conscious that change is inevitable. The island is so truly beautiful, so womblike in its tranquillity, it is like coming upon Eden. The Catholic Cathedral in Castries was somewhat like that, a solace from the heat and noise of the city. This is the territory of exile.
When he writes
[…]I watched until all that I loveFolded in cloud; I watched the shallow greenThat broke in places where there should be reef,The silver glinting on the fuselage, each mileDividing us and all fidelity strainedTill space would snap it. Then, after a whileI thought of nothing; nothing, I prayed, would change;When we set down at Seawell it had rained.
[…]Why blame the faith you have lost? Heaven remainsWhere it is, in the hearts of these people,In the womb of their church, though the rain’sShroud is drawn across its steeple.
[…]The silenceis stronger than thunder,we are stricken dumb and deepas the animals who never utter loveas we do, exceptit becomes unutterableand must be said,in a whimper,in tears,in the drizzle that comes to our eyesnot uttering the loved thing’s name,the silence of the dead,the silence of the deepest buried love isthe one silence,and whether we bear it for beast,for child, for woman, or friend,it is the one love, it is the same,and it is blestdeepest by lossit is blest, it is blest.
Walcott is tracing, like an anatomist, the pathways of pain and loss, the route of hurt as it courses through the nerves, the insertion of nostalgia in a node, the juices that speak truth to self-deception, re-calibrating the receptor sites for even more turmoil.
This island and Walcott’s poetry ought to be read together. For the poetry speaks to the land and the land too speaks to the poetry. The word and the thing together. From Rodney Bay, looking directly west, the sun sets exactly as it should: slowly, delirious and then suddenly it drops, out of sight. The fire of heaven extinguished! It is beautiful and exact, just like Walcott’s poems. At the end of the last line, the silence is itself phenomenal.
Photos by Jan Oyebode