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Poetry and Painting

by  Dr. Fazal Ali


LeRoy Clarke - In the Beginning, from the Series "Sanctuary", oil on canvas, 37 x 120"

Derek Walcott, writing from Duke of Edinburg Avenue in Petit Valley, penned a letter to LeRoy Clarke on February 29th, 1968. His opening salutation was – ‘Dear Picasso,’. Derek was deflated by the ‘back and forth news from Andre Gregory, the American director’ who postponed his trip four times. He conveyed to LeRoy that he was close to finishing two books of poems and a film script and that he was ‘Working hard like hell, and beginning to paint again’. He counsels LeRoy to call Oliver Jackman at the Barbados Delegation of the UN and to invite him along with Elliott Joslyn for a creole dinner. He tells his protégé, ‘Don’t panic and return’, ‘A year or two is nothing, then you come back here…’ In the letter, he included two additional pages. One was a large drawing of a scene from ‘Dream on Monkey Mountain’ and the other was a story board for that very play in nine frames with text and illustrations. Two years later, the play was published. LeRoy was privy to Derek’s poetics just as Andrea del Verrocchio’s apprentice Leonardo da Vinci joined his master in adding details to ‘The Baptism of Christ’. LeRoy had one formal art lesson in his entire life from Alpheus Charles. That was the end of his formal art education.

And there lies the secret of all pedagogy. The teacher leads the learner to the threshold of his or her own ruminations, and not invite the postulants into the temple of misunderstandings treasured by the sage.

LeRoy’s imagination was nurtured by Derek. He would run from school to be with Derek at the Theatre Workshop. In 1962, LeRoy sold his first painting for TT$15 at the National Independence Exhibition. He left Trinidad for New York in 1967. Here he started to paint on crocus bags on the floor of his apartment. The following year, Derek wrote to him and he exhibited in Harlem where he sold a painting for US $475 as the master and the apprentice grew in esteem conjointly. They shared their suffering, joys, frustrations, hopes, anxieties, and successes. In 1970, LeRoy decided to devote the rest of his life to an epic called, ‘The Poet’. The first movement was ‘Fragments of a Spiritual’. This was followed by ‘Douens’- a collection of 250 paintings, 400 drawings and a book of poems. LeRoy had succeeded in recasting our French folk imagination into a new pantheon of symbols. Soucouyant, Mama d’reau, La Diablesse, and the Douen came to depict the giddiness and disorientation of people in Latin America and the Caribbean who occupy a peripheral position inside their own dwellings. Douendom is to live in that liminality. In a twilight that is neither day nor night, neither death nor life. They are shaded beneath large rice paddy straw hats shunning all light with squinted eyes inside bamboo cathedrals along the river bank- never in the stream of consciousness. They walk headfirst but their feet are pointing backwards. LeRoy feels that Douendom has not dissipated but rather it has deepened and the high hopes of independence hang on a peg of disappointment. ‘Douens’ was exhibited at Howard University in 1976 and at the World Bank Washington in 1977. In 1979, ‘Douens’ was mounted in Trinidad at the abandoned and dilapidated Teachers Training College in Port of Spain. In that very year, Derek published ‘The Schooner Flight’. In many ways, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1798) by Coleridge is a precedent for Derek’s poem. While Coleridge’s poem explores the mariner’s transgressions against nature, Derek’s Shabine confronts History. Shabine becomes an Odysseus. Like the Odyssey, the poem traces Shabine’s journey across the Caribbean archipelago. Opting for the pleasures of exile like LeRoy, Shabine leaves the Slums of Empire repulsed by its corrupt postcolonial politics: ‘You saw them ministers in The Express, / guardians of the poor—one hand at their back, / and one set o’ police only guarding their house, / and the Scotch pouring in through the back door.’ ‘Christ have mercy on all sleeping things! / From that dog rotting down Wrightson Road/ to when I was a dog on these streets;/ if loving these islands must be my load,/ out of corruption my soul takes wings./ But they had started to poison my soul/ with their big house, big car, big-time bohbohl…so I leave it for them and their carnival-’.

Derek and LeRoy equally asked- Who is the West Indian? One thing is certain: he is an in-between. He stands, like Aeneas and Adam, at the beginning; and, by his will and imagination, must search for and form his identity. But always such ambiguity never yields a clear identification. On what grounds then, can the West Indian form a sense of self? The protagonist cries: ‘Tell me, what power, on these unknown rocks—/ a spray-plane Air Force, the Fire Brigade,/the Red Cross, the Regiment, two, three police dogs/ that pass before you finish bawling “Parade!”?’ Like our former overseers, we too have become parchment creoles and so Derek asks: ‘What does it matter that our lives are different? Burdened with the loves of our different children?’ We remain as varied as the corals. And like the sea fans and dead-men’s-fingers, we become powdery sand made from our bones and ground white by the sea and scattered from Senegal to San Salvador.

LeRoy began an epic quest to be a Poet and Derek always returned to painting. The Poet became the painter and the painter became a Laureate Poet. These weeping warriors pray: ‘Where is my rest-place, Jesus? Where is my harbor? Where is…the window I can look from that frames my life?’ There is still no reply. Only persecution. And the tall lances of coconut palms pierce their sides and the salt flowing from their eyes meet the salt of the sea.