The village of Paramin, in Trinidad’s high northern mountains, is a scattering of humble homes. Known for the peppers and thyme its farmers grow on hillside plots, the village is reachable only by vertiginous roads plied by old Land Rovers that serve locals as communal taxis. Trinidad is an island known for its intertwined histories—it changed hands between the British, French, and Spanish, and has more than a million residents who boast roots in India or Africa or both—and Paramin is especially so. Many of the area’s people descend from slaves who fled cocoa plantations at the mountains’ feet, and older residents still speak a French Creole. Each year, during Trinidad’s famous carnival, the sons of these elders cover themselves in blue paint and fasten demons’ horns to their heads. The “blue devils” then gather at the town’s crossroads, spitting fake blood, to terrify the children of their neighbors, or of visitors from the island’s nearby capital of Port of Spain.
No Trinidadian will read the title of the new book by Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize-winning poet from the nearby island of St. Lucia, and Peter Doig, the celebrated Scots-Canadian painter long resident on the island, without thinking of such traditions. “Morning, Paramin” is a collaboration between two foreigners who have both spent chunks of their lives in a country that is, as Walcott writes, “full of paintable names.” The book finds Walcott, who has himself always made paintings, and who will soon turn eighty-seven, responding to the dreamscapes of the painter thirty years his junior. On the left-hand pages, prints of fifty-one of Doig’s paintings from the past twenty-five years face poems by Walcott, written in the past two, on the right. Walcott’s free verse dilates upon the places the images evoke for him. A beach scene in crimson elicits an elegy, for instance, for “the wisdom you get from water-bearded rocks”; a painting of one of Paramin’s blue devils prompts an ode to islands whose “heredity is night,” their “bats and werewolves, loups garous, douennes.” The palette of Doig’s “Gasthof,” a painting of two figures in beige silhouette, has Walcott recall his first glimpse of an English mustard field—“like opening a book’s brass-studded doors.” Also included are some of the paintings Doig made of the snowy ponds and woods of Canada before he came to the tropics. Apropos of Doig’s snowflakes, Walcott, who once taught at a university on Alberta’s frigid plains, writes of “the silent blue kimono of the pool,” of “freckled logs,” and of “how far from palm and breakers was our apartment floor in Edmonton.”
Walcott makes mention, in the poem that accompanies the painting “Pond Life” (1993), of the “two different heritages” at play in Doig’s work. The phrase also describes the two friends—one black, one white, one a native son of the Antilles, the other an arrivant to them. Their collaboration was enabled by the island where they met, as Doig told me when I called him at his studio. Doig spent part of his boyhood in Trinidad, where his father worked for a shipping company; thirty-five years later, he returned for an artist’s residency, with his own family, and decided to stay. Walcott, Doig reminded me, first arrived there in the nineteen-fifties, to help found the vaunted Trinidad Theatre Workshop with his brother Roderick and performers including Beryl McBurnie and Errol Jones. He then spent decades splitting his time between universities in North America and his home in St. Lucia, where he grew up and where he has since settled with his partner of many years, Sigrid Nama. “By the time I came to Trinidad, in 2002, Derek no longer lived here,” Doig told me recently. “So it wasn’t until just a few years ago that we met.” Their meeting took place at the home in Trinidad of one of Walcott’s daughters, at a funeral gathering for his ex-wife, Margaret Maillard, whose memory Walcott had come to toast with their children. Doig had turned up near the gathering’s end, to pick up his daughter, who had become friends with Walcott’s grandkids. “But she came out and told me that Derek was inside and would love to meet.”
The two men talked for forty minutes—long enough for Walcott to convey his admiration for Doig’s work, to invite him to visit him sometime in St. Lucia, and to expound on Doig’s “Lapeyrouse Wall,” a painting of a man striding past the concrete wall of Trinidad’s main cemetery, carrying an umbrella against the sun. “He said it reminded him, in these ways that were really fascinating, of some work of Samuel Beckett’s,” Doig said. A few days later, a book publisher in London proposed to Doig that perhaps he’d like to work on a project with Walcott. Doig immediately agreed, with the proviso that Walcott, who had only seen small reproductions of his paintings, which are often large, should see them in person.
That winter, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was hosting a retrospective of Doig’s work. Walcott flew to Montreal and Doig personally escorted him through the galleries, pushing him in a wheelchair. “I had only spent one and a half hours with him,” Doig said. “But now I was looking at my paintings through his head and eyes. It was a very frank way to view one’s own work. The paintings that were not of interest to him were greeted with ‘Next!’ But some paintings provoked a lot: memories of his experiences in Trinidad, and thoughts about writers who occupy him—Beckett, or Brodsky, who was one of his great friends. His way of looking at paintings was very much about looking for narrative—but not necessarily the narrative the painter may have put there.”
One of the first commonalities that emerged in the book, Doig said, was the sense that “both of us arrived here as foreigners. We both know that feeling of foreignness. But foreignness that’s still deeply tied to the places we’ve lived.” There were others. Walcott’s densely allusive poetry has always shown, as well as an attachment to his home in the Caribbean, a love for the mores and meters of the Classics—and a deeply visual approach. (When Walcott was recently asked, in an interview with the young Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson, to identify his poetry’s greatest strength, he replied more like a painter than a scribe: “I think there are lots of times when I have maybe caught the light . . . the Caribbean light at sunrise and sunset.”) Doig’s paintings, meanwhile, contain a figurative warmth that can seem surprisingly free from the whole past century of art history. Yet they also exude an uncanny capacity to summon the kinds of mediated images that dominate our modern visual lives, like Polaroids whose color chemicals have been smudged by a thumb. This imagistic quality seems to be part of what draws Walcott to Doig, who often appears in the poems by name.
The day before I spoke to Doig, he’d hosted a party for “Morning, Paramin” in his studio near Port of Spain, at which a leading performer in Trinidad’s theatre scene, Wendell Manwarren, had read Walcott’s poems aloud. The poet had hoped to be present but hadn’t been able to make the trip; air travel is no longer easy for him. When I asked Doig about the origins of the book’s title, he told me that he wasn’t sure, but he recalled a morning that he had spent with Walcott in Paramin, soon after they met. Perhaps, he said, the title referenced that. He said he’d call me back after he had spoken to Walcott in St. Lucia.
My phone rang a few minutes later. “It wasn’t that morning at all,” Doig laughed. “He says it’s simply Paramin—and how its name used to make him and Margaret laugh when they said it. He says it’s all there in the book.” Later, I found a poem titled “Paramin,” facing a painting of Doig’s called “Untitled (Jungle Painting)”—a spectral figure, tall ferns, a loincloth. Its lines find a poet at twilight, reflecting on one of Trinidad’s most “paintable names”:
She loved to say it and I loved to hear it,
“Paramin,” it had the scent of cocoa in it,
the criss-crossing trunks of leafy gommiers straight
out of Cézanne and Sisley, the road rose then fell fast
into the lush valley where my daughters live.
The name said by itself could make us laugh
as if some deep, deep secret was hidden there.
I see it through crossing tree trunks framed with love
and she is gone but the hill is still there
and when I join her it will be Paramin
for both of us and the children, the mountain air
and music with no hint of what the name could mean,
rocking gently by itself, “Paramin,” “Paramin.”