From left: Sir Stephen Spender, Philip Levine, Dr. Fred Closs, May Swenson, and Derek Walcott.
During the last day of a weekend photo assignment twenty-six years ago on the campus of Lafayette College I had an interesting encounter with Derek Walcott who, along with other luminaries, had given a reading as part of Professor Fred Closs's annual Roethke Poetry Festival.
I was terribly hung over, and so was Walcott. We didn't have much of a conversation, we just sat side-by-side in the shade of a tree and watched students pass on the walkway. He said there had been entirely too much literary talk the previous Friday and Saturday, and he was getting rather tired of these academic events, so we found ourselves just chatting idly.
Love? Ah, yes. Love.
It's always on our minds, and we put it at the center of our universe. We think it's only one event involving one person, which we hope will last forever, but it's really just ephemeral, transient. We convince ourselves we can be happy only if someone we love loves us back.
But that's not quite true, as we finally learn after many, many disappointments, which inevitably lead to all these head-splitting hangovers.
I felt like I was in the company of a seasoned Army infantryman. He had survived the war, and had come out of it whole, alive, and with his humor intact. He'd seen some pretty grim stuff, and yet he found nothing to cry about.
Today by happenstance I came across one of Walcott's poems, which reminded me of our meeting that lovely spring morning. It spoke to me. Here it is:
Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.