A POET'S ST. LUCIA


Seeking the soul of the island
through the words of Derek Walcott

Los Angeles Times
Sunday, February 22, 1998
By John B. Van Sickle

In the mist of the sea there is a horned island
with deep green harbors . . .
. . . a place of light with luminous valleys
under the thunderous clouds . . . .Her
mountains tinkle with springs among
moss-bearded forests. And the white egret
makes rings stalking its pools . . . a
volcano, stinking with sulphur, has made it a healing place.

from Derek Walcott's Omeros.

CASTRIES, St. Lucia--The poet and playwright Derek Walcott put this Caribbean island on the literary map with his 1990 masterpiece Omeros, an epic poem that helped him capture the Nobel prize for literature in 1992. It also captured my imagination and that of my wife, Gail Levin, leading us to a different kind of Caribbean vacation in search of the sites so poignantly evoked in Walcott's poem.

Had we chosen the prepackaged St. Lucia promoted by the tourist office and travel agents, we would have been consigned merely to white beaches, crystal blue-reeen waters, duty-free shopping, gourmet buffets and every imaginable spin on the rum cocktail.

But we were drawn more strongly to the story told in Omeros in which a fatally attractive, ebony-skinned heroine name Helen captivates two fishermen, Achille and Hector, descendants of slaves. Their passions and the setting described by the writer made us want to visit the place that inspired him.

The poet describes a rain forest with waterfalls and giant ferns, colonial estates with rusting mills, soaring volcanic cones, brightly painted boarts and rum shops in beach villages shaded by sea almond trees, crumbling forts, yellow allamanda flowers, darting swifts and piratical frigate birds.

Planning our trip last year, it was not hard to decide to travel from our New York home during winter. In Omeros Walcott contrasts icy Boston, where he once lived and taught, with the "green January" of St. Lucia (pronounced LOO-sha). The poem also describes traveling by Land Rover around the island, with risky roads but spectacular views, so we decided to rent a car. It gave us glexibilityy in choosing where to stay and eat, and what to see. I found that driving on the left (this is, after all, part of the British Commonwealth) wasn't difficult, although some St. Lucian roads feature steep grades and hairpin turns.

Best of all was the serendipity. We could stop at a banana stand, happen on a cock fight, seek out an artist's remote studio, stumble on a crafts center or luck into a secluded beach. (The downside of serendipity was that even the cheapest car rental costs $660 for two weeks, and we nearly ran out of gas one Saturday whe the west coast of the island had not been resupplied).

On the other hand, when we did occasionally ride in taxis or minivans we could scan the landscape without worry about potholes or lurching trucks. All major routes are served regularly by a fleet of shiny minivans called "transports" that are an inexpensive form of island transportation used by the locals. (These are successors to the picturesque Comet driven by Hector in "Omeros" as a way of earning money to win Helen from Achille.)

Walcott was born in 1930 in Castries, the capital of St. Lucia, though he left the island for college and built his literary career as a poet and playwright on the island of Trinidad, to the south. He later moved to New England to teach, and he recently collaborated with pop singer-songwriter Paul Simon on "The Capeman," a musical set in New York that opened on Broadway amid some controversy recently. But Walcott's writing always returns to his St. Lucia roots.

We centered ourselves north of Castries, near the town of Gros Islet, in order to explore at leisure sites on the north part of the island that best evoke "Omeros." Our headquarters was a quiet pink hotel called Glencastle, set on a hillside with a view of Rodney Bay and a beautiful beach not far away.

We made excursions down to Castries and nearby Vigie Promontory looking for "Omeros" sites. At the high point of Vigie, for example, stands the lighthouse that Walcott compares to the Cyclops, Homer's one-eyed monster. Also near here are the Historical-Archaeological Society and the National Trust, which turned out to be indispensable resources for what shaped up as our "Walcott heritage tour." (The trust, for example, offers a land-sea tour that parallels the poem's Dantesque climax as the poet is guided by Homer along the coast and down into the sulfurous crater of Soufriere volcano.)

During our explorations, we happened on a gleaming white hotel that stands between the small Vigie airport (a larger international airport, Hewanorra, lies at the southern tip of the island) and Castries. Called the Auberge Seraphine, it has two levels of rooms wrapped around a terrace and pool with views toward the harbor. We looked at the rooms and introduced ourselves to the owner, Ernest Joseph, who, it turned out, once had Derek Walcott as an art teacher at St. Mary's College in Castries (Walcott is also an accomplished watercolorist). We vowed to make this our base of operations on our next visit.

The center of Castries is a short cab ride or 20-minute walk from Auberge Seraphine. "Omeros" pointed us to Bridge Street, at the end of which the cruise ships dock. On the way, one passes the New Castries market at the corner of Peynier and Jeremie streets, where vendors hawk orange and yellow spices, nutmeg, coffee beans and bars of pure chocolate that we tucked into our bags to take home as gifts.

Across Jeremie Street at the corner of Laborie, we found the Valmont Bookstore and a stock of more Caribbean writers than we knew, editions of Walcott from England and a detailed ordnance map of the island that became our vademecum as we explored.

Three blocks down Laborie Street, we came to the main square, which used to be named after Christopher Columbus for "discovering" St. Lucia in 1492. But in 1992, Columbus' 500th anniversary, Walcott won the Nobel Prize, and a local committee, reasoning that historians had debunked the discovery anyway, renamed the plaza Derek Walcott Square.

On the square, we visited the Carnegie Library to see the portrait of Harry Simmons, a journalist who encouraged the young Walcott and the island's most famous artist, Dunstan St. Omer, to paint in oils and words the island they saw around them.

Adding St. Omer to our quest, we walked across the square to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Here, the painter broke with French colonial tradition and frescoed the walls with images of black saints before a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1985. Retracing our steps past the library, we found the gallery St. Omer Artmagic, owned by the painter's son, and arranged to later visit the murals south of Castries that also illuminate the cultural framework of "Omeros."

Behind the cathedral, we took Brazil Street to Chaussee Road, then turned right to the house where Walcott grew up. In "Omeros," the writer describes the porch once trellised with bougainvillea and, alas, now replaced by the yellow storefront of a printing shop. Back beyond the square, we enjoyed lunch with Creole cuisine and local clientele at the bustling Pink Elephant.

Postponing a swim, we drove to the top of Morne Fortune, the hill that looms over the town, around some of the sharpest bends anywhere on the island. But at the top there are magnificent views, even as far as Martinique on the distant horizon. (Without a car, the Morne is an easy trip by taxi or transport.) "Omeros" fixed the Morne in our minds with its images of Irish Maud Plunkett in her garden looking down to the white liners docking. We found her favorite allamanda flowers still attracting hummingbirds. The Morne was the site of some of the many battles between the French and the British for control of the island. "Omeros" had prepared us for the mossy tombs of colonial officers and the military barracks, now transformed into Sir Arthur Lewis Community College (named after the island's other Nobel Laureate, an economist).

From the Morne, we continued along the main route south to the studio of one of St. Lucia's best-known artists, Vincent Eudovic. Famous for his knowledge of the island's native woods, he rescues roots and stumps of the now extinct laurier cannelle trees, which Walcott features in the poem as the gods of the forest and which were cut down to be shaped into dugout canoes for fishermen.

Visiting the Morne late on a Monday, we discovered that gentlemen can don jacket and tie and ladies can pick a roadside flower for their hair to take advantage of Ladies Night ("two dinners for the price of one") at the stagy Green Parrot. We spent $ 37 on dinner--essentially continental cuisine with local nuances--served by waiters in tuxedos.

For everyday lunches, though, we tried to watch our budget by sticking to local cooking at places such as Du Bois in Castries or Jimmie's near Point Vigie, where the owner is an old acquaintance of Walcott's. We found another Walcott connection at the nearby Coal Pot, an excellent but pricey restaurant whose proprietress is the lissome niece of Walcott's first flame, the blond Anna, who figures in his autobiographical poem "Another Life."

Gros Islet, where we had settled in at the Glencastle hotel, is the village six miles north of Castries where Walcott's fishermen, Achille and Hector, lived. In "Omeros," the object of their affections, Helen, sashays out to the local Friday night street dance called the "jump up," one of which we checked out. We ate fried fish and drank the beer at Hector's Place, and watched people dance in the street. One of the street vendors proffered conch shells made into trumpets. (The conch used to be an instrument of celebration and communication between villages; its moaning sound is a leitmotif in "Omeros.")

From the poem, we recognized the fishing boats and the twin-humped promontory across the bay: Pigeon Island, with its squat remains of a fort. Now called Pigeon Point, it is the site of one of the poem's most poignant scenes, in which Walcott imagines the fishermen's slave ancestors proudly but painfully building the fort for the British Admiral Lord George Rodney. Restored by the National Trust as Pigeon Island National Historic Park, the fort, with its small museum and ramparts overlooking Rodney Bay, to our minds gave the best single introduction to St. Lucia's colonial past.

At home in the big city, looking back on our two weeks trying to get some insight into Derek Walcott's beloved island, I bring out one of the conch shells I brought home as souvenirs. I feel the rough shell on my lips and recall the moan of the conch's trumpet sound, the seething hiss of the surf, the rustling of island trees and the chirps of crickets in the night. The time brought us closer to the poet and his epic work, helping us share his powerful nostalgia for a paradise lost.



GUIDEBOOK / St. Lucia Lush

Getting there: There are no nonstop or direct flights to St. Lucia. Probably the most convenient service from LAX is on American Airlines, which offers connecting service, involving a change of planes, to the island's international airport, Hewanorra; lowest round trip fare is about $ 900.

Where to stay: (Note, the area code for St. Lucia is 758, followed by the seven-digit numbers below. It is not necessary to dial 011 first, as you would for most international calls.)

Auberge Seraphine (Box 391, Vielle Bay, Pointe Seraphine, Castries, St. Lucia, West Indies; telephone 453-2073, fax 451-7001) is a modern hotel with a swimming pool and rooms overlooking Castries harbor; double rooms $ 85-$ 90 per night, suites $ 115. In Gros Islet, Glencastle (P.O. Box 143, Castries, St Lucia, W.I.; tel. 450-0833, fax 450-0837) also has a swimming pool and rooms with views of Rodney Bay; $ 75 double, $ 10 less after April 14. There are a number of all-inclusive luxury resorts on St. Lucia, including a Sandals and a Club Med. But local agents can also arrange more inexpensive apartment rentals: Contact Joan Paul (tel. 452-3603, fax 453-1933) or Martha Phillips (tel. 453-1006, fax 453-0995).

Where to eat: In Castries, the Coal Pot (tel. 452-5566) on Vigie Point has terrace dining overlooking the marina and sophisticated international cuisine; expensive. On Morne Fortune, Du Bois (tel. 452-2201) offers good, simple local dishes; we paid about $ 7 for lunch for two. The Green Parrot (tel. 452-3399), also on Morne, has a more elegant ambience and prices to match, though we paid $ 37 for a fixed-price Monday night two-for-one special.

For more information: St. Lucia Tourist Board, 820 2nd Ave., Suite 900E, New York, NY 10017; tel. (800) 456-3984 or (212) 867-2950, fax (212) 867-2795. Web site: http://www.turq.com/stlucia.html.