I can’t claim to be any kind of expert on Walcott’s work, but I’m grateful for the many poems of his I’ve experienced over the years.
This is a poem from Walcott’s first book (and one I shared today in Notabilia):
The Fishermen Rowing Homeward
The fishermen rowing homeward in the dusk,
Do not consider the stillness through which they move.
So I since feelings drown, should no more ask
What twilight and safety your strong hands gave.
And the night, urger of the old lies
Winked at by stars that sentry the humped hills,
Should hear no words of faring forth, for time knows
That bitter and sly sea, and love raises walls.
Yet others, who now watch my progress outward
To a sea which is crueler than any word
Of love, may see in me the calm my voyage makes,
Parting new water in the antique hoax.
And the secure from thinking may climb safe to liners,
Hearing small rumors of paddlers drowned near stars.
—Derek Walcott (1949)
—from The Poetry of Derek Walcott: 1948-2013
And another favorite bit from the end of Omeros, his book-length poem based on The Odyssey and The Iliad (I have to confess that my general resistance to really long poems has resulted in reading less of Walcott’s work than I should have):
Out of their element, the thrashing mackerel
thudded, silver, then leaden. The vermilion scales
of snappers faded like sunset. The wet, mossed coral
sea-fans that winnowed weeds in the wiry water
stiffened to bony lace, and the dripping tendrils
of an octopus wrung its hands at the slaughter
from the gutting knives. Achille unstitched the entrails
and hurled them on the sand for the palm-ribbed mongrels
and the sawing flies. As skittish as hyenas
the dogs trotted, then paused, angling their muzzles
sideways to gnaw on trembling legs, then lift a nose
at more scavengers. A triumphant Achilles,
his hands gloved in blood, moved to the other canoes
whose hulls were thumping with fishes. In the spread seine
the silvery mackerel multiplied the noise
of coins in a basin. The copper scales, swaying,
were balanced by one iron tear; then there was peace.
They washed their short knives, they wrapped the flour-bag sails,
then they helped him haul In God We Troust back in place,
jamming logs under its keel. He felt his muscles
unknotting like rope. The nets were closing their eyes,
sagging on bamboo poles near the concrete depot.
In the standpipe’s sandy trough aching Achilles
washed sand from his heels, then tightened the brass spigot
to its last drop. An immense lilac emptiness
settled the sea. He sniffed his name in one armpit.
He scraped dry scales off his hands. He liked the odours
of the sea in him. Night was fanning its coalpot
from one catching star. The No Pain lit its doors
in the village. Achille put the wedge of dolphin
that he’d saved for Helen in Hector’s rusty tin.
A full moon shone like a slice of raw onion.
When he left the beach the sea was still going on.
Finally, a poem also shared by a friend today that seems most fitting to close this post with:
Half my friends are dead.
I will make you new ones, said earth
No, give me them back, as they were, instead,
with faults and all, I cried.
Tonight I can snatch their talk
from the faint surf’s drone
through the canes, but I cannot walk
on the moonlit leaves of ocean
down that white road alone,
or float with the dreaming motion
of owls leaving earth’s load.
O earth, the number of friends you keep
exceeds those left to be loved.
The sea-canes by the cliff flash green and silver;
they were the seraph lances of my faith,
but out of what is lost grows something stronger
that has the rational radiance of stone,
enduring moonlight, further than despair,
strong as the wind, that through dividing canes
brings those we love before us, as they were,
with faults and all, not nobler, just there.
—from Sea Grapes