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A poet's letter to Derek Walcott (1930-2017)

Saint Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott died on 17 March 2017.

Dear Professor Walcott,

I almost saw you once. I went to the Southbank Centre in London to hear you read during my last year as an undergraduate, when I’d spent a week curled up with Omeros, your (very) loose interpretation of Homer’s two classics, trying to work out why the narrative of a place I didn’t know, seen through the eyes of a man I had little in common with (I’m sorry, but I was on Ruth Padel’s side), had me so tightly in its grasp.

I wasn’t sure yet about your grandiosity, your women always sleeping or washing or leaving, the poem’s veering sidetracks into European cities and 19th century Native American activism.

But I was held by your meter, lulling and challenging as an ocean – and by your lines, each cutting and independent as a ray of light. I was held by the metaphors you layered onto and onto a single thing until it held a whole culture, a whole mind, a whole view of human-ness. You did this, looking at the sea and at white egrets, sea-grapes, herons and the moon, for sixty-five years.

(And I’d loved the Omeros moment when the narrator-you met Homer, and admitted you never actually read the Odyssey, “Not all the way through.” As a magpie reared on overview – a term on medieval literature, a compilation of New Orleans jazz, a Malaysian taster platter – I got that.)

But it was April 2010: a volcano had erupted in Iceland, shutting down air traffic over Europe. I remember being annoyed, even angry, but also a little relieved. Part of me wanted to keep your poems in my own imagination, your metre in my internal voice.

I think you’d understand that. After all, you were the poet who claimed that each sitting-down to write was a renewal of anonymity.

And you were the creole writer who liked to flourish the roots of things – from Africa to Europe, childhood to Homer, Creole to Latin, black painter father to white grandfather who burned himself alive - and then pull them away, more and more roots until your poetry strained with the effort of containing everything, and became something new.

Perhaps every poem is as creole as a human, gathering in everything seen and felt, and becoming something not stable enough to be copied. Or perhaps I loved Omeros’ swelling waves because I was falling in love with London’s créolité and yearning for my mother’s creole country at the same time. You championed créolité, working against the British fantasy of benign empire and Aimé Césaire’s négritude to insist that your island was its own place, not a displaced Africa or Europe – and that being one of the first to write it was a privilege, not a lack.

Since 1992, St Lucia has the greatest number of Nobel winners per capita: two. Sir Arthur Lewis created economic development plans for former colonies; you ran theatre companies, insisted on your right to English and French and Creole and anything else you knew, and with a small band of peers created written Caribbean literature, and with it the 20th century. You were the Crusoe of your long poem “Crusoe’s Journal,” sitting on an island and naming things until they were yours.

You also told us, in Crusoe’s voice, that “to change your language you must change your life.”

Professor Walcott, I think my own island is dying. England is hankering for a time before you could speak, Scotland ponders the unitedness of the kingdom, and voices all over the world insist that places and people can only be one thing or another. I worry that these times will undo the 20th century, will send professors and poets back to their small islands, and then leave those islands to drown.

You say most modern poetry could fit in parentheses. I’m going to take that as a challenge. You explained how grandiosity is part of performance, how those we talk to deserve a show, not a whisper, and I want to be as bold as you: the fourteen-year-old boy, black in 1944, Methodist in a country of Catholics, whose first local publication was an epic denunciation, in Miltonic blank verse, of the priesthood.

When new worries keep washing up like waves, different yet the same each time, it’s easy to panic that there’s nothing we can do. But as you witnessed your time, and helped shape it, I promise to witness mine – and to try.

Colette Sensier

Colette Sensier is a British poet based in New Orleans. A winner of the Tower, Foyle and Peterloo poetry prizes, her latest poetry collection is Skinless (Eyewear Publishing).

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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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