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Derek Walcott on Love

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.

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i've always loved this poem, and the wry wisdom of derek walcott. thanks for the post.

Strange how one thing always leads to another. For instance I encountered Walcott's poem before the preface in Audrey Niffenegger's 2005 novel "The Time Traveler's Wife," which was the book recommended by a friend in response to my asking for the title of a good love novel, the techniques of which I might profitably emulate, inasmuch as that likely will be my next literary project. Walcott's poem prompted my LJ reminiscence, which in turn prompted your reply, which in turn led me to your LJ, which in turn led me to your other blog, in which you discuss at length Hervé Guibert and his "lost" photograph, a moment he missed camera-less while vacationing on the island of Elba. You quote him as saying if he'd actually taken the photograph, then he would have forgotten the memories and associations the scene stimulated, but then since he wrote at length about it, the event was not totally lost. Well, I fully understand that and I suspect you as a writer/photographer do as well since writing is either an extension of photography or photography is an extension of writing. It's all about preserving the moment, fully documenting what lies before us, shaping what has shaped us...

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