Prove your humanity: 10   +   2   =  

Giving Voice to One People’s Grief Derek Walcott and the Life-Giving Force of Poetry

 

On the 17th of March 2017, the Nobel prize-winning poet and playwright, Derek Walcott, passed away on his native island of St. Lucia. He was 87. I first encountered Walcott’s poetry a few years ago, having leafed through his final book of poetry, White Egrets, which I was to deliver to my elder sister. I was immediately struck by the fluidity of his language, and his painterly renditions, in words, of nature and its beauty. Only later would I discover that he was a painter, too; a discovery not at all surprising, considering the keen observations of the natural world common across his poems.

As I read Walcott more widely and deeply, I began to discover the riches within his works. I was particularly struck by his recurrent musings on identity and history, and the unique perspectives afforded him as a mixed-race man and a product of the British colonial enterprise. Nowhere are these musings more lyrically explored than in his poem, “The Schooner Flight”, a poem that, among other things, serves as a remarkable exhibition of Walcott’s fierce genius.

“The Schooner Flight” is perhaps the densest and most lyrical voicing of all of Derek Walcott’s major concerns as a poet. Central to all Walcott’s themes is the overarching subject of the West Indian—his place in the world, and his means of making sense of this world. That Walcott is a West Indian, though unclear from his name alone, is immediately apparent as one begins to peruse his verse. This is true most especially in “The Schooner Flight”. Serving as background to the narrative’s unfolding is the Caribbean, and its archipelago of islands, the sea its central meeting point, its centre of force. And so, we are presented with an unmistakably West Indian protagonist, Shabine, a poet-sailor whose flight Walcott traces out with his pen. To where Shabine is going, we do not know. All we know is that to get to this wherever, he must head out to the centre, the sea.

Who is the West Indian? In a way, this is the main question that Walcott explores and explicates through this poem. One thing about the West Indian is certain, that he is an in-between, a bastard, the illegitimate child of the opposing historical forces of binary black and white, of master and slave. The name Shabine, “the patois for any red nigger”, is more precisely explained as a nickname in the Caribbean for any one of visibly mixed racial ancestry. Thus the protagonist, by his speech and by his blood, represents the hybridization of Caribbean culture, its consisting of elements from Africa and Europe, two continents often viewed as polar. The difficulty arises when one realizes that such a mixture is something that has no clear identification. Shabine’s identity, not quite this and not quite that, is one in progress, and not based on pedigree. On what grounds, then, can the man of this world-space form his sense of self?

Keep in mind that Shabine’s struggle cannot be resolved by a simple act of choosing either identity. Were he to attempt to do this, his blood would betray him. Everyday, Shabine must acknowledge his in-between-ness (his not-quite-ness) as he confronts this bitter truth in the reflections of the mirror, in the eyes of the black or white man, in the eyes of history. Having no definite place in history, Shabine the poet-sailor must then create a place for himself and his fellow men. He stands, like Aeneas and Adam, at the beginning; and, by his will and imagination, must search for and form his identity. What form does this search take, and what possible escape could there be from such an impossible situation?

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“ Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.”

— The Book of Matthew, 11: 28


“Where is my rest-place, Jesus? Where is my harbor? Where is… the window I can look from that frames my life?”

— The Schooner Flight, Section 2

“The Schooner Flight” begins with the protagonist, yet unnamed, leaving his companion, Maria Concepcion, as he sets out from the Caribbean Island town of Carenage. To where he is going, we do not know, only that he is to fly upon the sea on a schooner. Stepping out of his home and into his yard, he stills himself for a moment, and is struck by the stasis of all the elements of nature around him, save the “galvanize” sea and nail-iron stars which, even in their motion are still defined as metallic, cold and hard—lifeless, that is.

Although the wind begins to “interfere with the trees”, giving motion to nature’s overbearing inertia, a general feeling of lifelessness remains as the protagonist walks downhill to catch his taxi to Carenage. Walking down the road, his neighbour gazes at him with an intensity that makes him feel “like [he] was dead.” Even the taxi driver, revealing his name exclaims, “this time Shabine like you really gone!” referring to the sensed finality of this particular departure, but also hinting at Shabine’s near-lifelessness, as though he is a spectre or ghost.

The association of Shabine’s current space with lifelessness, death, and nothingness is further evoked by a linguistic consideration of the title of this first section, “Adios, Carenage”. A careenage is a place where one careens a ship, where a ship is beached to rest—a harbour. There is a certain stillness associated with the careenage, as with Shabine’s present surroundings (and his self too). More strongly, the word calls to mind a similar looking word ‘Carnage’ which denotes a mass of idle bones and dead flesh. How much more lifeless can one get than a collection of corpses?

What is Walcott trying to draw the reader’s attention to? Why has he painted a Caribbean that is, “so choke with the dead?” And what is the consequence of this lifelessness on Shabine’s existence? With these questions in mind, look at, perhaps, Shabine’s most weighty proclamation, and the crux of the entire poem:

I’m just a red nigger who loves the sea,
I had a sound colonial education
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.

With these chant-like words, Shabine begins to explain the source of that lifelessness. With a racial make-up that is part black and part white, part African and part European, and, in this historical context, part slave and part master, Shabine is unable to have a clear knowledge and sense of himself.

“I had no nation now but the imagination,” he goes on to say, as he describes the play of historical forces that have denied him a grounded existence. “The first,” that is the white men, “chain [his] hands and apologize,” while the blacks said, “he wasn’t black enough for their pride,” with ‘pride’ here referring both to pride of race and a community of men likened to a pride of lions. In this reverse ‘tug of war’, Shabine is denied a place in either society. Africa and Europe, these two historically opposing forces, both of which he descends from, reject him in turn, and deny him an existence that is more than that of a corpse or merely physical. Without a firm identity (or, at least, the feeling of one), how can he, Shabine, have a spirited and significant existence?

As Shabine says adios to Carenage, he also says goodbye to that pure physicality of his existence. “Out of corruption,” Walcott writes, “[his] soul takes wings.” His flight into the sea is, thus, both actual (real) and metaphorical. As metaphor, the flight is representative of his search for an identity, for a frame of life in a historical and cultural context, and for a place in a community of men. Despite his understanding of the necessity of his journey, Shabine feels great sorrow at the thought of leaving. Not even the allure of enlightenment and completion is enough to ease his pain; he, like mourners at graveside, “want[s] the dead back.”

Even more painful than the sorrow of leaving his home is that of leaving the sleeping Maria Concepcion behind. At first glance, Maria Concepcion seems to simply be Shabine’s mistress. His moment of waking with her, coupled with the discovery later on that he has abandoned his wife and children for her, confirms this. For the reader conversant with the Christian tradition however, her name is disturbingly familiar, and one suspects that her importance in the poem is more than as mere detail.

Maria Concepcion reminds the reader of Mary of the Immaculate Conception, the mother of Christ the Son of God. It is impossible to observe her presence in the poem without wanting to associate her with purity and divine birth. But she is not pure, not virginally, at least; she is Shabine’s mistress. Why has Walcott introduced her with this name? What is her significance, if any, in Shabine’s flight?

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As the first section of “The Schooner Flight” comes to a close, Shabine likens the words and pages of his poetry to the sea and the wind beneath the schooner’s sails. In “simple speech”, the poet recreates for the reader a sea voyage in which the different moments of flight are packed with lyrical power, stunning imagery, and philosophical depth. The words of the poem are “soaked in salt”, partly due to being washed by the sea’s salty spray and partly because of the poet’s tears. Shabine, and Walcott by extension, thus paints the picture of a pained sailor, searching for his identity out in the tumultuous waters of the sea.

Out at sea, at the break of dawn a few days into his journey, Shabine encounters the infamous Middle Passage, the gateway for slaves into the New World and the historical focal point of Shabine’s (and by extension the Caribbean’s) birth and existence. The flight passes by the remains of old ships whose sails have been worn dry by age. “All you could hear,” Shabine says, “was the ghostly sound of waves,” past the ships, “and the hissing weeds they trailed from the stern.” Shabine’s experience, however, is not limited to these still, dry remains. On these ships he sees the flesh, tissues, and bones of half-naked crewmen. He sees the great admirals of the past—Rodney, de Grasse, Nelson— and hears their orders to their seamen. In his encounter, Shabine imbues these still remains with life as only a poet could, in order to experience history in a more personal and immediate fashion, and also to share in the stories of men like him before him.

Moving on from the war ships, the flight encounters slave ships. The first person singular pronoun ‘I’ is substituted for the collective ‘we’, signalling the shared experience of this encounter with his other crewmates. We see, then, that the previous imaginative experience was deeply personal for Shabine, inaccessible to others around him. Perhaps this is because of Shabine’s unique situation of being visibly of white ancestry. As such, he shares (whether by choice, or by the dictates of his society) in the history of the European forebears of the Caribbean, never mind that they fail to recognize him (along with the darker skinned West Indians) as an heir.

In stark contrast to the meeting of the war ships, the moment of contact between the men on the schooner and the slave ships is far less tactile. There is no physicality to the slaves; Shabine cannot see them. A deep chasm separates them so profoundly that there is no possibility of mutual acknowledgement from the sailors or their slave-ancestors who are “below deck too deep”. So deep have the histories of the black forebears of the Caribbean been buried that even Shabine, with his poetic ability, is unable to give form to them.

Nevertheless, there is a connection established through the sailors’ claim of ancestry, present here and notably absent in the previous encounter with the admirals. Shabine, and the others around him, thus, recognize an undeniable connection, seek vehemently (by clamorously shouting) proof of this connection, but are forced to abandon their search. This is partly due to the obscurities of that deep sea that is history and partly due to the sun’s brightness (nature’s interference), which has turned all the products of Shabine’s imagination into mist, preventing him from that imaginative experience previously afforded him with the war ships. We come to understand the unfortunate situation of the West Indian, doubly removed from an understanding of his African ancestry both by the deliberate de-historicization wrought upon him by slavery and colonialism, and by the fact of his inhabiting new natural locations whose Edenic quality and remoteness from the African continent blind him from the truth and proof of his ancestry.

Exasperated by his unanswered ‘shouting’, Shabine asks, “Who knows his grandfather much less his [own] name?” Without knowledge of one’s ancestral or cultural history, without knowing our forefathers, how can we know ourselves? How can we identify ourselves with a name that situates us firmly in one tradition?

The same brief encounter with the slave ships, which raises the above questions, subtly hints at their answers, too. As previously noted, a collective “we” of Caribbean sailors like Shabine share the encounter with the slave ships. They recognize an ancestral connection with these slaves of all nations, even without seeing them. When Shabine asks grandfather History in his cream linen for answers about the black cook, History responds with nothing. In turn, Shabine accepts this shared nothingness with other Caribbean men like himself, other in-between men, as the basis for a shared identity. The lack of a coherent, fully tangible history unites them, and on this they base and construct a new tradition for themselves and their children to come.

The answers to the above questions, however, still elude Shabine. The pain and turmoil, caused by his search for an identity and for a coherent sense of self, whirl to a head and increasingly threaten to sunder Shabine permanently into the nothingness from which he desperately seeks to escape. So profound is this pain that Shabine begins to descend into madness. Feeling himself sinking amidst the tempest of contradictory historical forces within him, Shabine makes an impassioned plea for salvation from the pain and horror of society and history that refuse to acknowledge him. In the tenth and penultimate section of the poem titled “Out of the Depths”, we see this internal tempest manifest itself in the outer world, marking the climactic resolution of Shabine’s journey.

At the break of an “arse-aching dawn”—the Flight still out at sea—the wind “shifts sudden,” and, Walcott writes, the “sea get so rough so fast.” Here, the tempest of historical and societal forces is threatening to overwhelm Shabine. And Shabine, in his search for identity (in a particular framework of tradition), seeks to situate himself in a fixed place, a rest place within the expanse of history. History keeps silent, and he is unable to unearth the story about himself. Despairing his impending doom, Shabine resigns himself to that lifelessness from which he escaped Carenage at the beginning of the poem. “I am the drowned sailor in her Book of Dreams,” he cries, in reference to Maria Concepcion’s foreboding dream.

As the storm presses on, Shabine remembers “them ghost ships” and imagines himself “corkscrewing” down to the bottom of the ocean. Suddenly, a mysterious strength seizes him and he hears a voice say:

I from backward people who still fear God.
Let Him, in His might, heave Leviathan upward
By the winch of his will, the beast pouring lace / from his sea-bottom bed.

The image evoked here is that of a powerful God, by means of sheer force of will, conquering this beast that threatens to destroy. With these words, Shabine is also calling himself to power and action, to “bridle the horses of the sea.”

What form does this action take for Shabine? It is after remembering his imaginative encounter with the ghost ships that he experiences that immense death-defying strength. Shabine realizes the power of the imagination not only to imbue history with life, but also to go beyond the confines of history, and to get at that which history refuses Shabine. To get to his identity, to create life. “In hard pews,” he recalls, “we sang how our race / survive the sea’s maw, our history, our peril, / and now I was ready for whatever death will.” It is by singing of his people’s history (or lack thereof)—these people with a shared nothingness—by the creative power of poetry, that he is able to form an identity for himself and his people. Shabine makes a nation out of nobodies.

This power of creation attributed here to poetry is an idea subtly present since the beginning of the poem. As Shabine stands outside his home back in Carenage, the entire natural world is still, except for the sea and skies, until the wind begins to rustle the tree’s leaves. Several lines later, Shabine asserts that “his speech go be the wind”, connecting his poetry to that same wind that quickens. This image is reminiscent of the biblical account of creation. In the book of Genesis, too, the entire world, having no form, is still, except for the waters, upon whose face the Spirit of God hovers. The moment of God’s “let there be” corresponds to the motion of the wind. Holding these images together, we see in Shabine’s poetry that same power of creation present in the voice of God in Genesis. Shabine’s entire journey has, thus, been aimed towards this definitive moment of poetic creation.

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Having poetry be the triumphant end of Shabine’s journey, Maria Concepcion’s presence throughout the journey and Shabine’s inability to forget her suggest that Maria Concepcion—in addition to being his mistress—is also his muse, steering Shabine the poet to that moment of poetic creation. If we accept her role as thus, the significance behind her name begins to reveal itself. As was mentioned, Shabine understands his poetry to be the life-giving force to himself and his people. By poeticizing his struggle as an in-between, he leaves an indelible testimony to the legitimacy of these in-between men, and makes a place for himself both in a community of dead men (history) and a community of living men. Maria Concepcion is thus the vessel (or the catalyst) through which word gives existence (metaphorical flesh and blood) to Shabine, just as the other Mary was the vessel through which the word of God became flesh, giving salvation, redemption, and eternal life to all mankind.

After the Storm, Shabine has a vision, in which he witnesses “the veiled face of Maria Concepcion marrying the ocean.” The moment of poetic creation is over, and the poet has no need any longer of his muse. With this moment of poetic creation comes satisfaction to Shabine’s earlier troubles, and he expresses contentment with the words, “I wanted nothing after that day.” “If my hand gave voice to one people’s grief,” Shabine says, “I am satisfied.” In singing the song of his self and his people, he opens the window of tradition from which both he and his progeny can look from to frame their lives.

As the poem comes to an end, Shabine assumes an Adamic role. With raindrops falling after the storm, he proclaims: “the white clouds, the sea and sky with one seam, / is clothes enough for my nakedness.” With these words, Shabine evokes in the reader’s mind, an image of Edenic man, standing at the beginning of existence. In the same way, Shabine’s poetry marks the beginning of a history and tradition of his people.

Although Shabine and his poetry stand triumphantly at the beginning of his people’s existence, there is an even greater struggle ahead of them, and that is the human struggle. Shabine must set forth on a new flight to that “target whose aim we’ll never know,” and to that place where grief and strife exist no more, “that island that heals with its harbour /… where the almond’s shadow doesn’t injure the sand.”

And so being born into personhood, having a framework to make sense of the world, Shabine must now begin his truly human journey (a search for knowledge and the pursuit of human happiness). As the poem comes to a close, Walcott presents the reader with one final image, that of “the moon open[ing] up the sky,” and light from the heavens bearing Shabine home on a “road in white moonlight.” Having fashioned, through poetry, an identity and a coherent tradition for his fellow Caribbean men, Shabine the poet passes on from this world to the next, his task of creating a beginning for his people accomplished. So, too, with Walcott, who, having sung tirelessly about the Caribbean and continually insisted on the fullness of that peculiar experience, now leaves this world behind, his poetry a fountain of life to the eternal descendants of the Caribbean, and of the World

‘The Schooner Flight’
is available in “Collected Poems, 1948-1984: Derek Walcott”
528 pp. Farrar, Straus x Giroux

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Read “The Schooner Flight” in full here.