A City's Death by Fire
Derek Walcott speaks
Snally Gaster's African American Phat Library Experience
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Those five or six young guys
lunched on the stoop
that oven-hot summer night
whistled me over. Nice
and friendly. So, I stop.
MacDougal or Christopher
Street in chains of light.
A summer festival. Or some
saint's. I wasn't too far from
home, but not too bright
for a nigger, and not too dark.
I figured we were all
one, wop, nigger, jew,
besides, this wasn't Central Park.
I'm coming on too strong? You figure
right! They beat this yellow nigger
black and blue.
Yeah. During all this, scared
on case one used a knife,
I hung my olive-green, just-bought
sports coat on a fire plug.
I did nothing. They fought
each other, really. Life
gives them a few kcks,
that's all. The spades, the spicks.
My face smashed in, my bloddy mug
pouring, my olive-branch jacket saved
from cuts and tears,
I crawled four flights upstairs.
Sprawled in the gutter, I
remember a few watchers waved
loudly, and one kid's mother shouting
like "Jackie" or "Terry,"
"now that's enough!"
It's nothing really.
They don't get enough love.
You know they wouldn't kill
you. Just playing rough,
like young Americans will.
Still it taught me somthing
about love. If it's so tough,
Broad sun-stoned beaches.
A green river.
scorched yellow palms
from the summer-sleeping house
drowsing through August.
Days I have held,
days I have lost,
days that outgrow, like daughters,
my harbouring arms.
Schizophrenic, wrenched by two styles,
one a hack's hired prose, I earn
me exile. I trudge this sickle, moonlit beach for miles,
to slough off
this live of ocean that's self-love.
To change your language you must change your life.
I cannot right old wrongs.
Waves tire of horizon and return.
Gulls screech with rusty tongues
Above the beached, rotting pirogues,
they were a venomous beaked cloud at Charlotteville.
One I thought love of country was enough,
now, even if I chose, there is no room at the trough.
I watch the best minds rot like dogs
for scraps of flavour.
I am nearing middle
age, burnt skin
peels from my hand like paper, onion-thin,
like Peer Gynt's riddle.
At heart there is nothing, not the dread
of death. I know to many dead.
They're all familiar, all in character,
even how they died. On fire,
the flesh no longer fears that furnace mouth
that kiln or ashpit of the sun,
nor this clouding, unclouding sickle moon
withering this beach again like a blank page.
All its indifference is a different rage.
A City's Death by Fire
After that hot gospeller has levelled all but
the churched sky,
I wrote the tale by tallow of a city's death by fire;
Under a candle's eye, that smoked in tears, I
Wanted to tell, in more than wax, of faiths that were snapped like wire.
All day I walked abroad among the rubbled tales,
Shocked at each wall that stood on the street like a liar;
Loud was the bird-rocked sky, and all the clouds were bales
Torn open by looting, and white, in spite of the fire.
By the smoking sea, where Christ walked, I asked, why
Should a man wax tears, when his wooden world fails?
In town, leaves were paper, but the hills were a flock of faiths;
To a boy who walked all day, each leaf was a green breath
Rebuilding a love I thought was dead as nails,
Blessing the death and the baptism by fire.
Derek Alton Wolcott (West Indian poet and playwright) is the third black to receive the ($1.2 million) Nobel Prize for Literature (1992). He was born Jan. 23, 1930, Castries, Saint Lucia , one of the Windward Islands in the Lesser Antilles. The experience of growing up on the isolated volcanic island, an ex-British colony, has had a strong influence on Walcott's life and work. Both his grandmothers were said to have been the descendants of slaves. His father, a Bohemian watercolourist, died when Derek and his twin brother, Roderick, were only a few years old. His mother ran the town's Methodist school. After studying at St. Mary's College in his native island and at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, Walcott moved in 1953 to Trinidad, where he has worked as theatre and art critic. He began writing poetry at an early age, at the age of 18, he made his debut with 25 Poems (1948), but his breakthrough came with the collection of poems, In a Green Night (1962). In 1959, he founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop which produced many of his early plays., and he is noted for works that explore the Caribbean cultural experience.
Walcott is of mixed black, Dutch, and English descent. He was educated at St. Mary's College, St. Lucia, and at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica.taught at schools in St. Lucia and Grenada, and contributed articles and reviews to periodicals in Trinidad and Jamaica. Productions of his plays began in St. Lucia in 1950, and he studied theatre at Jose Quintero's acting school in New York City in 1958-59. He lived thereafter in Trinidad and the United States, teaching for part of the year at Boston University.
Walcott won the prestigious MacArthur Foundation "genius" award in 1981. He joined the Boston University faculty as a professor of poetry and playwriting that year. The next year he was a visiting professor at Harvard University, but his term ended in a cloud of controversy. A freshman student complained that he had sexually harassed her and given her a C when she resisted. At the time, Harvard dean Henry Rosovsky said he would be "reluctant" to reappoint Walcott, who returned to BU.
Walcott is best known for his poetry, beginning with In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960 (1962). This book is typical of his early poetry in its celebration of the Caribbean landscape's natural beauty. The verse in Selected Poems (1964), The Castaway (1965), and The Gulf (1969) is similarly lush in style and incantatory in mood as Walcott expresses his feelings of personal isolation, caught between his European cultural orientation and the black folk cultures of his native Caribbean. Another Life (1973) is a book-length autobiographical poem. In Sea Grapes (1976) and The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979), Walcott uses a tenser, more economical style to examine the deep cultural divisions of language and race in the Caribbean. The Fortunate Traveler (1981) and Midsummer (1984) explore his own situation as a black writer in America who has become increasingly estranged from his Caribbean homeland. Walcott's Collected Poems, 1948-1984, was published in 1986. In his book-length poem Omeros (1990), he retold the dramas of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey in a 20th-century Caribbean setting.
Of Walcott's approximately 30 plays, the best known are Dream on Monkey Mountain (produced 1967), Ti-Jean and His Brothers (1958), and Pantomime (1978). Many of hisplays make use of themes from black folk culture in the Caribbean.
25 Poems, Port-of-Spain: Guardian Commercial Printery, 1948
Epitaph for the Young, Xll Cantos, Bridgetown: Barbados Advocate, 1949
Poems, Kingston, Jamaica, City Printery, 1951
In a Green Night, Poems 1948 - 60, London: Cape, 1962
Selected Poems, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1964
The Castaway and Other Poems, London: Cape, 1965
The Gulf and Other Poems, London: Cape, 1969
Another Life, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux: London: Cape, 1973
Sea Grapes, London: Cape; New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1976
The Star-Apple Kingdom, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979
Selected Poetry, Ed. by Wayne Brown. London: Heinemann, 1981
The Fortunate Traveller, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1981
The Caribbean Poetry of Derek Walcott, and the Art of Romare Bearden, New
York: Limited Editions Club, 1983
Midsummer, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984
Collected Poems 1948-1984, New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1986
The Arkansas Testament, New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1987
Omeros, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1990
Harry Dernier, Bridgetown: Barbados Advocate, 1952
The Sea at Dauphin. Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago: University of the West Indies, Extra-Mural Studies Unit, 1978.
Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux,1970
The Joker of Seville & O Babylon!, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1978
Remembrance & Pantomine: Two Plays, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1980
Three Plays, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1986
The Art of Derek Walcott, Ed. by Stewart Brown, Bridgend: Seren Books, 1991