Dylan Brennan: Walcott at The Hay Festival

Pumping sweat from every reddened pore in the long queue outside the Teatro del Estado in Xalapa, mere seconds before overhearing that Derek Walcott would not, in fact, be attending the Hay Festival, I had been wondering whether there would be enough time for him to sign my copy of Omeros before my non-refundable return bus to Puebla departed. Of course, that was now irrelevant and my thoughts were overcome with a sickly feeling of deflation. A six-hour round trip from temperate Cholula to the oppressive, bullying humidity of the Veracruz capital, was all in vain. I am tempted to write that this was not the first time that I had felt this way. That, however, would be untrue. In 2004 I had obtained free tickets for a mouth-watering double-bill reading by Walcott and Ciaran Carson at the Poetry Now Festival in Dún Laoghaire. Walcott was also, due to a mugging in Paris, unable to make that event. I was told the day before that he would not be attending and that Seamus Heaney was to take his place. So, forewarned and somewhat appeased by an equally pleasing alternative lineup (Dennis O’Driscoll provided the introductions), the disappointment of not hearing/seeing the St. Lucian was diluted and, almost forgotten totally, after a masterful performance by Carson. So, no. I had not had this feeling before. My disappointment soon turned to infuriation when I noted that nobody from the Hay Festival was prepared to volunteer any information. I later discovered that the news of his non-attendance was published in a newspaper I don’t read. On the morning of the event it had not been mentioned on the festival’s social media sites. I was not informed by staff during my time in the queue, or when my ticket was taken at the door or when I was browsing (and buying) books in the foyer. But I already knew (despite harbouring a faint hope to the contrary), I had overheard a lady complaining that this was the second reader for whom she had bought tickets that had not shown up. Sodden and bemused, I took my seat.

The hour-long event had been billed as a conversation with Peter Florence. Florence took to the podium in the centre of the stage and informed us that Walcott had fallen after a trip to Trinidad to attend the world premiere for a documentary about his life. Incapacitated, he was unable to travel. Just as one cannot remain angry for a man in his seventies for not attending due to a traumatic mugging in Paris, so too could we not remain miffed with a man in his eighties not being able to attend as a result of a nasty fall. Florence told us that we were to hear a bilingual reading of three poems and see the documentary film. A poor substitute but perhaps not as bad as originally feared. We were to see the second ever screening of ‘Derek Walcott – Poetry is an Island’ by Ida Does.

Here we go. Florence gets proceedings underway with a reading of ‘A Far Cry from Africa’ which is subsequently read by the Spanish language translator of Walcott’s work (and poet in his own right) José Luis Rivas. Immediately we are reminded of why we had come here in the first place as all ears, whether previously initiated or otherwise, prick at the startling: ‘What is that to the white child hacked in bed?/To savages, expendable as jews?’ This is followed by ‘Islands’ (which can ‘only exist, if we have loved in them’) and the still overwhelming final section of the epic Omeros: ‘When he left the beach the sea was still going on’. So far so, well, still fairly disappointing to be honest despite the valiant efforts of Rivas and Florence.

Now for the film. The opening scenes point towards a one-sided hagiography with all the objectivity of a DVD bonus feature. And, to a certain extent, thankfully, that is the case. With only a very fleeting mention of Walcott’s recent spat with V.S. Naipaul, it is clear that this film is a celebration. And it works. Close friends and family members reminisce and marvel at the indefatigable work the man in question. Saltwater proves to be one of  the predominating ingredients of this pretty little film and, while not quite reaching the almost other-worldly beauty of Pedro González-Rubio’s 2009 Alamar, the viewer almost feels like having visited a small Caribbean island in which one is never far from a shore. The film (with the exception of some archive footage from the 1992 Nobel lecture) appears to be filmed entirely on location in St. Lucia and beguiles throughout. We see Walcott on Rat Island, a small island given to him as a present by the government of St. Lucia. We hear of his attempts to convert the island into a retreat for artists. We are presented with the heartbreakingly dilapidated and overgrown Derek Walcott Theatre and learn that he once gave a reading there with Heaney. In fact, Heaney features in one of the most memorable scenes. Walcott brings him and his wife up to a hill to look at a vibrant mural inside a church. The mural was painted hastily, yet masterfully, by a friend of Walcott’s and the poet is visibly moved by the fact that he can share this work of art with others. He thanks Heaney for accompanying him and the Irishman’s response brings joy to Walcott: ‘Ah sure Derek, we’re lucky to be here’.

Unexpectedly, much of the film focuses on Walcott’s criticism of the St. Lucian government. We see locals working tirelessly to attempt to convert Walcott’s boyhood home into a museum. Finally receiving help from the National Trust, it seems that the house, at one point completely abandoned and smeared with graffiti, is to be fully restored. We see his exasperated reaction to the news that a major hotel complex has gotten the go-ahead in the shade of the famous Pitons, those striking twin towers just south of Soufriere. His son laments the lack of a decent theatre in which visiting tourists could enjoy one of Walcott’s 25-odd plays. The poet himself claims that the fact that Barbados has a nice theatre and St. Lucia does not is ‘hard to take’ (as is the fact that his Rat Island project is still to receive government backing).

Towards the end of the film politics makes way for celebration as scenes of one of Walcott’s birthday gatherings take centre stage. Heaney resurfaces and their friendship feels almost tangible. Crucially, Walcott’s poetry is frequently heard throughout. As this nostalgia-laden film begins to wind down the viewer sees him sitting in his chair and hears his voice reading from ‘Love After Love’: ‘Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,/the photographs, the desperate notes,/peel your own image from the mirror./ Sit. Feast on your life.’ And what a life. The implication is clear, the poet sits on his chair staring out to the ocean and sundown. We hear talking heads worrying about his age, his forgetfulness, his frail legs. We remember why he is not here with us in Xalapa. He sits staring out to the changing light upon the waters, knowing that even when he has left his beach, the sea will still be going on. Florence tells us that Walcott hopes to be with us in Xalapa next year. Third time lucky? Perhaps. I’d rather just hope that he remains with us, in Xalapa, St. Lucia or wherever, for plenty more years to come.

Dylan Brennan’s poetry has been published in a number of Irish and international journals such as Agenda Broadsheets, Poetry Ireland Review, New Binary Press Anthology of Poetry, The Penny Dreadful Magazine, Revival Literary Journal, The OFI Press, Arabesques etc. He has also collaborated with the Fundación Juan Rulfo on two of their recent publications El gallo de oro (2010) and Juan Rulfo: Otras Miradas (2010). In 2006 he featured in the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series. He lives and works in Mexico.