Singing in Dark Times – #7 in a Series – Derek Walcott’s Gratitude

Ozzie's Garden, Brownstown, Jamaica. Photo Credit: Bill Cunningham

Ozzie’s Garden, Browns Town, Jamaica. Photo Credit: Bill Cunningham

The Morning Moon

Still haunted by the cycle of the moon
racing full sail
past the crouched whale’s back of the Morne Coco Mountain,

I gasp at her sane brightness.

It’s early December,
the breeze freshens the skin of this earth,
the goose-skin of water,

and I notice the blue plunge
of shadows down Morne Coco Mountain,
December’s sundial,

happy that the the earth is still changing,
that the full moon can blind me with her forehead
this bright foreday morning,

and that fine sprigs of white are springing from my head.

Derek Walcott from Collected Poems 1948-1984, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993

This poem seems such antidote to the tone of some of the dark tones and dark actions in the world around us these days. A perfect poem for my series: Singing in Dark Times which was born out of Berholt Brecht’s famous small poem:


In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.

Bertolt Brecht(1898-1956): Poems 1913-1956, edited by John Willett and Ralph Manheim, Eyre Methuen, 1976

*Brecht titled a number of his poems Motto. This poem, Motto, comes at the end of his Later Svendborg Poems and Satires 1936-1938

Walcott’s poem is not a singing about the dark times. Instead it captures an “isness” of this world’s beauty that shines even in the dark. When the dark dims lanterns such as these, the dark is deep indeed. May the brightness Walcott’s poem is, shine brightly. May it encourage me, and I hope, you, to feel whole heartedly, I am happy that the earth is still changing.

Strange, yet such resonant timing. Here I am in Jamaica for a few extra days after a week long poetry retreat, sponsored by Kahini, with Jamaican and American writers. What a word soaked time. And Walcott-word-soaked time. Walcott such blood- beat and breath for the Jamaicans. Huge shoulders they climb to see and understand their world. He is cicerone to them. He walks beside them as they translate their world. His, the master translation they use to help them make their own.

The age will know its own name when it comes,
as love will find its breath softly expelling
“was I like this?”
with the same care, the precise exhilaration
with which the heron’s foot pronounces “earth”.

Derek Walcott, from Guyana, ibid

A highlight moment for me was on a bus ride during the retreat. A Jamaican poet, way younger than me, put down her book of Walcott’s poems and from memory recited his poem Sea Grapes. She breathed a West Indian lilt and cadence into each word. It was as if, to paraphrase Walcott, she picked up the rain and sun and plucked the first lines:

That sail which leans on light,
tired of islands,
a schooner beating up the Caribbean

for home could be Odysseus,
home bound on the Aegean……

As if this gift was not enough this poet recited me her own poem influenced by Walcott’s love poem to Anna, an early and unforgotten love of his. These words, the poet quoted from Chapter 15 of The Divided Child from the book Another Life:

Still dreamt of, still missed……Ouch, oh ouch. The true feeling in this. How as the words entered my ears first I thought of my own lost loves, one in particular, and felt the pinch. Why poetry is dangerous and vital. How Walcott says: Now, I require nothing// from poetry but true feeling,/ no pity, no fame, no healing.

How blessed to have had Walcott translated this way for me in the region he called home and the regional place given such voice through his words. It is true that I sometimes struggle with the historical layering and references in Walcott. I get lost. I need annotations like with Eliot! But he has lines and stanzas that strike like heron beak, break me open, and something rises into wing out of me. When I try to capture it too quickly I crash land, or so it seems. To read Walcott here I stay aloft more easily.

Walcott’s poem full of gratitude, even as he aged, reminds me of how grateful I feel today even though I am so aware from his haiku, Issa’s poignant, And yet… I let the and yet be and remain grateful. With this sense of gratitude in a dark time I wrote these words to some friends yesterday:

Happy here, 2000 feet up in the hills of Browns Town (got here last night from Negril after picking up my friend at Montego Bay): dove calls, the comma and semi colons breaking up this day’s sentence. To make  paragraphs, stanzas out of this day with such deft pronunciations of nightingale song, green gestures of banana, uxoria, hibiscus, poor man’s orchid and philodendron. And the spaces in between for a soul to walk and breath without speaking.

If I say purple flower of the garlic vine, or yellow trumpet of the allamanda will you know my soul has become wing beat of bee and a buzz that pronounces pollen, pistol and stamen. Will you know my soul as something other than me? Will I know it? If my lungs collapse inside my chest will I know there is another breath I can live by, rely on? But if the lungs of that other breath wither and shrink, what then?

Ah, writing again. Being sounded by my poems. It’s good.



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