January 23, 2006

Happy Birthday, Derek Walcott

The first book that I fell in love with was Another Life by Derek Walcott. The poems traced Walcott’s life through his first loves (“Anna," drinking, and painting), his friendships, marriage, and career as a writer.

I was sixteen and in love with my own “Anna” and Walcott’s poems described the kind of life that I wanted to have. And it didn’t help that
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was one of the assigned readings for our Cambridge exams.

I remember going to Sangster’s (it used to be in front of Welcome Grocery, Standpipe) and passing the old woman (she always checked if the boys were going to the back of the store to read Playboy) to buy a copy of Another Life with four week’s worth of lunch money I had saved. (This may explain many things.)

I went back to my home in Mona Heights and began reading on my own verandah, “Darkness soft as amnesia furred the slope” and looking up at Long Mountain and across to “Anna’s” home.

Another Life’s description of the landscape that I inhabited--the possibility that it could be captured in words--came at a time of growing nationalism in Jamaica when Bob Marley and Michael Manley held our teenage imaginations. It was a great time to be alive.

As I move deeper into middle-age, Walcott’s lines still haunt me:

And I answer, Anna,
twenty years after,
a man lives half of life,
the second half is memory,

the first half, hesitation
for what should have happened
but could not, or

what happened with other
when it should not.

Give thanks, Derek Walcott. The original poetic massive.

(An earlier version of this post was published with Maud Newton: "You'll never forget your First Book"


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