Derek Walcott and Peter Doig’s Double-Barreled Magic
The Wall Street Journal
Ann Landi
9 December 2016

In “Morning, Paramin,” a renowned painter and a Nobel-winning poet meditate on the difficult beauty of the Caribbean.

The poet Derek Walcottand the painter Peter Doig might seem unlikely collaborators for a volume of pictures and verse. Mr. Walcott, born in 1930, was a prodigy, publishing his first poems at the age of 14 and steadily accumulating honors, including a Nobel Prize, throughout his long career. Mr. Doig, born in Edinburgh in 1959 and partly raised in Canada, studied painting in London but was more of a late bloomer; he didn’t earn a master’s degree until he was 31. Two decades later, though, the sale of his painting “White Canoe” for $10 million and a retrospective at the Tate truly put him on the map as one of Britain’s leading artists.

Both men now make their home in the Caribbean—Mr. Walcott in his birthplace of St. Lucia; Mr. Doig in Trinidad—and their respective artistic endeavors have much in common. Both make accessible work, yet occasionally inject an air of beguiling mystery. (Consider, for instance, these lines from Mr. Walcott’s “The Oak’s Arms Command”: “Ale-gulping dwarves / screamed blasphemous curses while a subtle moon / guided the conqueror’s vessels to dim wharves.”)

Generally, though, Mr. Walcott relies on old-fashioned pleasures of poetry: internal and slant rhymes, couplets and even storytelling. Mr. Doig works with the painter’s time-honored arsenal of pigment, canvas and brushes. His figurative paintings make him a successor to artists like Edvard Munch and Henri Rousseau.

In “Morning, Paramin” Mr. Doig and Mr. Walcott attain a kind of double-barreled magic as the poet responds to 51 of the artist’s paintings. Both men are worldly travelers, and their visual and literary journey here takes the reader from snowy northern landscapes to steamy jungles and tropical beaches.

Sometimes Mr. Walcott invents a narrative to go with a particular canvas. In “The Hitch-Hiker,” a slab of scumbled landscape traversed by a red truck, the poet sees the monotony of the driver’s journey as “the provinces slide past with their packed towns . . . / and soon there will be nothing but the light / of the red truck with who knows what freight / on which the humped hitch-hiker sleeps all night.”

Of a man walking beside a cemetery, carrying a pink parasol under a pale blue sky in “Lapeyrouse Wall,” Mr. Walcott infers a solitary mourner: “The parasol, I’d say, belongs to his dead wife; / it floats him determined, ruminant in the hot sun.” In one of Mr. Doig’s most dramatic canvases, “100 Years Ago (Carrera),” a tableau of an impossibly long orange canoe carrying a solitary figure, the poet sees a “bearded, emaciated” man “tired of escaping his past.” Or he might be a “beat musician, say a bass player marooned in his own fantasy on a / Caribbean vacation.”

In this and other poems Mr. Walcott makes us aware of the rich and often brutal history of the Caribbean. “Carrera is one of the five islands in the Gulf of Paria, legendary voice in / calypso folklore as a prison famous for its stone-breaking punishment / and emphatic melody,” he informs us in the closing lines. In others he easily mixes cultures, citing in one poem both Chekhov and “those scenes / in a cop movie where during the bank heist / a flash like this reveals the bandit’s face.”

Like Mr. Doig’s paintings, in which neon oranges and greens grab the viewer’s eye, the poet’s observations are often tinged with acid. The water that surrounds “Pelican Island” is a “basin of blood” where insecticides have wiped out the birds. In “Pelican Man,” a poem and painting about a poacher who makes off with his prey, dragging it along a “night beach,” Mr. Walcott warns, “We have done things to nature in our time. / The victim may be missing, but not the crime.”

In addition to ecological disaster and violence, there is also personal tragedy and a keen awareness of mortality in these poems. There are allusions to the recent death of a woman named Margaret (possibly the poet’s second wife?), and a consciousness of his own end, often approached in a light-hearted way as he celebrates the joyous nature of funerals in Caribbean society. “I should like to be a guest / at my own funeral,” he tells us. “Keep the beat for everything, the clapping, / that makes death seem the happiest thing to happen.”

The “Paramin” of this book’s title, also a poem that accompanies Mr. Doig’s “Untitled (Jungle Painting)” is a real place, a village located in Trinidad, and the poet mentions a lush valley nearby where his daughters live. It’s significant that it rhymes almost with “paradise,” and Mr. Walcott informs us, without naming the loved one in question, that “when I join her it will be Paramin.” The title thus resonates on several levels: as a greeting, or a time of day or a play on “mourning.”

Mr. Walcott’s love and knowledge of art shine through, and perhaps his early training as a painter gave him a particularly sharp eye. He is fond of citing other painters that come to mind when he’s studying Mr. Doig’s works: Daumier, Cézanne,Philip Guston,De Chirico,Picasso, even Chris Ofili. Which makes it all the more puzzling that he would mistake the old woman in Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting “Christina’s World” for a girl, as he does in his poem “Girl in White with Trees.” Most observers on first encounter with the Wyeth canvas do indeed believe the solitary figure could be a crippled girl, but closer observation reveals the scrawny arms of an elderly farm woman.

That small complaint aside, this is a volume that offers pleasures on so many levels, not the least of which is the poet’s deft use of metaphor. In a poem describing the exotic heritage and appearance of one of Mr. Doig’s portraits, he writes of “beards like forking flames” and a woman with “wet eyes like black olives.” It’s an interpretation of a gorgeous painting that, like all great reading experiences, subtly changes the way you see.