Friday, March 24, 2017

The Living Dead

~ Honouring our poetic ancestors ~

R.T.S.L. (1917-1977)

As for that other thing 
which comes when the eyelid is glazed 
and the wax gleam 
from the unwrinkled forehead 
asks no more questions of the dry mouth,

whether they open the heart like a shirt 
to release a rage of swallows, 
whether the brain 
is a library for worms, 
on the instant of that knowledge 
of the moment 
when everything became so stiff,  

so formal with ironical adieux, 
organ and choir, 
and I must borrow a black tie, 
and at what moment in the oration 
shall I break down and weep - 
there was the startle of wings 
breaking from the closing cage 
of your body, your fist unclenching 
these pigeons circling serenely 
over the page,  

as the parentheses lock like a gate 
1917 to 1977, 
the semicircles close to form a face, 
a world, a wholeness, 
an unbreakable O, 
and something that once had a fearful name 
walks from the thing that used to wear its name, 
transparent, exact representative, 
so that we can see through it 
churches, cars, sunlight,  
and the Boston Common, 
not needing any book.

– Derek Walcott (1930-2017)

I don't know who R.T.S.L. was (perhaps some Walcott scholar among our number can enlighten us?) but I expect you know that Walcott himself died a few days ago, at the age of 87.

It must be about 35 years ago that my then husband, Bill, came home one day and told me to switch on ABC radio quick: he'd just been listening to a marvellous new poet on the car radio, a Caribbean called Derek Walcott.

Dutch-born Bill was not a poet himself but a lover of the English language and of poetry in English – like Walcott himself, who is described in Wikipedia as 
“an elated, exuberant poet madly in love with English”. (English is the official language of Walcott's birthplace, St Lucia, but he would also have grown up speaking patois, which he sometimes used in his poems.)

Actually Walcott was not at all a new poet in 1982 or thereabouts, but he was newly resident in the USA at that time, which may be, indirectly, how his work came to the attention of an Australian radio show.

At that stage I had not heard of him, but I enjoyed his deep, mellifluous voice on that radio program. Then I noticed the beauty of his words, and listened harder; and afterwards sought out his work.

He received  the Nobel Prize for Literature ten years later.

A splendid obituary in The New York Times gives all the important details of his life and career – so thoroughly that it has saved me the trouble of any further research. Here is the link. Do have a read!

You can find his books on his Amazon page – mostly in paperback, but some are in Kindle too.

I'll give my friend Linda Stevenson the last word and perfect summing up, with her comment on facebook after his death was announced:

"Have been re-reading lots of his fabulous poems. What a generous, clear, musical voice...he seemed to beautifully merge a metaphysical inclination with perception of the everyday."

Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright). 

This particular photo is made available through Creative Commons and has the citation: Bert Nienhuis - File of the Werkgroep Caraibische Letteren, The Netherlands.


  1. Ah, another poetic light dimmed. I deeply admire this poem, the understanding of the outer shell, stiff after death, while the inner being departs from the body, "walks from the thing that used to bear its name, transparent"............that is exactly how I view death. And I love "the startle of wings." Thank you for this, Rosemary.

  2. Yes! Thank you for giving us Walcott today! This poem in particular is appropriate--its rage and startle and questioning of the formality of the goodbye. Sigh.

  3. How lovely for ne that you use my quote here Rosemary, made my heart beat a little faster. And what a superb choice of poem to celebrate this brilliant poet at the time of his passing. Thanks so much for this contribution, including that personal snippet about Bill alerting you to the poet's voice, both literally in the moment and for your following keen appreciation of his work.

  4. A well written tribute. I shared, because we all should take a moment to remember. Perhaps a few more Walcott works will be read today.

  5. What a wonderful share Rosemary! The last stanza is stunningly beautiful. This is the first poem of Walcott I am reading and what a poem!
    R.T.S.L.(1917-1977) seems to be Robert T.S. Lowell, an American poet, according to Wikipedia.

    1. Oh, thank you for identifying him, Sumana! That makes sense. (I really must read more of Lowell; he was so influential.)

  6. Ah, thank you for being so current with your feature, Rosemary. Excellent introduction to Derek Walcott, a poet that I had heard of but had not read. He was featured on our public radio this past week....and someone read the poem "Love after Love" which I quickly fell in love with. I copied this from the Poem Hunter Site.....this poem of his also very much speaks to me.


    The time will come
    when, with elation
    you will greet yourself arriving
    at your own door, in your own mirror
    and each will smile at the other's welcome,

    and say, sit here. Eat.
    You will love again the stranger who was your self.
    Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
    to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

    all your life, whom you ignored
    for another, who knows you by heart.
    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.

    ---Derek Walcott

    1. Yes, it's beautiful! It seems to be already very well-known, which is why I didn't choose it for this feature, though I was torn. I'm very glad you shared it here; thank you.

  7. One more, and maybe the last, of a great generation of poets... all dead now, all alive in the poetry...

  8. A beautiful tribute to a wonderful Caribbean voice

    Much love...


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