Wise Poets – Derek Walcott – The Light Of The World

Derek Walcott (January 23, 1930 – March 17, 2017)

                I’ve got to have Zion-ah,
                I’ve got to have Zion-ah
For the rain is falling”

—Bob Marley

Marley was rocking on the transport’s stereo
and the beauty was humming the choruses quietly.
I could see where the lights on the planes of her cheek
streaked and defined them, if this were a portrait
you’d leave the highlights for last, these lights
silkened her black skin, I’d have put in an earring,
something simple, in good gold, for contrast, but she
wore no jewelry. I imagined a powerful and sweet
odor coming from her, as from a still panther,
and the head was nothing else but heraldic.
When she looked at me, then away from me politely
because any staring at strangers is impolite,
it was like a statue, like a black Delacroix’s
“Liberty Leading The People,” the gently bulging
whites of her eyes, the carved ebony mouth,
the heft of the torso solid, but a woman’s,
but gradually all of that was going in the dusk,
except the line of her profile, and the highlit cheek,
and I thought, O Beauty, you are the light of the world!
It was not the only time I would think of the phrase
in the sixteen seater transport, that hummed between
Gros Ilet and the Market with its grit of charcoal
and the reek of vegetables after Saturday’s sales,
and the degenerate rumshops, outside whose bright doors
you saw drunken women, the saddest of all things,
winding up their week, unwinding up their week.
The Market as it closed on this Saturday night
or rather in the light that was poised to be lit
on the one hand, and on the next to go out,
as I remembered a childhood of wandering gas-lanterns
hung on poles at street-corners, and the old roar
of vendors and traffic, when the lamplighter
hooked the lantern on his pole and moved on,
and the children turned their faces towards it
with eyes white as their nighties, the Market
itself was closed in its involved darkness
and the shadows quarrelled for bread in the shops,
or quarrelled for the formal custom of quarrelling
in the electric rumshops. I remember the shadows.
The van was slowly filling in the darkening depot.
I sat in the front seat, I had no need for time.
I looked at two girls, one in a yellow bodice,
and yellow shorts, with a flower in her hair,
and lusted in peace, the other less interesting.
That evening I had walked the streets of the town
where I was born and grew up, thinking of my mother
with her white hair fading in the dying dusk,
and the cramped box-houses, that seemed perverse
in their smallness, I had peeped into parlors
and watched the dark shrouding the intimate furniture
of a divan, a center-table with its wax flowers,
and the lithograph of Christ of The Sacred Heart,
and vendors still selling to the empty streets.
Sweets, nuts, sodden chocolates, nut-cakes, mints.
An old woman with a straw hat over her headkerchief
hobbled towards us with a basket, somewhere,
some distance off, was a heavier basket,
that she couldn’t carry. She was in a panic.
She said to the driver: “Pas quittez moi la terre”
which is in her patois: “Don’t leave me stranded,”
which is, in her history and that of her people:
“Don’t leave me on earth,” or, by a shift of stress:
“Don’t leave me the earth,” for an inheritance,
“Pas quittez moi la terre,” heavenly transport,
“Don’t leave me on earth,” I’ve had enough of it.
The bus filled in the dark with heavy shadows
that would not be left on earth, no, that would be left
on the earth, and would have to make out.
Abandonment was something they had grown used to.
And I had abandoned them, I knew that now,
sitting in the bus there, in the sea-quiet dusk,
with men sitting in canoes, and the same old lights
from the Vigie headland, and boats on the water,
I who could never solidify my shadow
to be one of their shadows, left them on their earth,
to their white rum-quarrels, and their coal-bags,
and their hatred of corporals, of all authority.
I was deeply in love with the woman by the window.
I wanted to be going home with her this evening.
I wanted her to have the key to our small house
by the beach at Gros Ilet, I wanted her to change
into a smooth white nightie that would pour like water
over the black rocks of her breasts, to lie
simply beside her by the ring of a brass-lamp
with a kerosene wick, and tell her in silence
that her hair was like a hill-forest at night,
that a trickle of rivers was in her armpits,
that I would buy her Benin if she wanted it,
and never leave her on earth. But the others too.
Because I felt a great love that brought me to tears,
and a pity that prickled my eyes like a nettle,
afraid that I might start suddenly sobbing
on the public transport with the Marley going,
and a small boy peering between the shoulders
of the driver and me, at the lights coming
at the rush of the road in the country darkness
with lamps in the houses on the small hills,
and thickets of stars, I had abandoned them,
I had left them on earth, I left them to sing
Marley’s songs of a sadness as real as the smell
of rain on dry earth, or the smell of damp sand,
and the bus felt warm with their neighborliness,
their consideration, and the polite partings
in the light of its headlamps. In the blare,
in the thud-sobbing music, the resinous scent
that came from their bodies, I wanted the transport
to continue forever, for no one to descend
and say a goodnight in the beams of the lamps
and take the crooked path up to the lit door,
guided by fireflies, I wanted the beauty
to come into the warmth of considerate wood
and the silent, relieved greeting of enamel plates
in the kitchen, and the tree in the yard,
but I came to my stop. Outside the Halcyon Hotel.
The lounge would be full of tourists like myself.
Then I would take a dark walk up the beach.
I got off the van without saying goodnight.
Goodnight would be full of inexpressible love.
They went on in their transport, they left me on earth.
Then, a few yards ahead, the van stopped. A man
shouted at me through the transport window.
I walked up towards him. He held out something.
A pack of cigarettes had dropped from my pocket.
He gave it to me. I felt closer to tears.
There was nothing they wanted, nothing I could give them
but this thing I have called “The Light Of The World.”