I’ve never been to Paramin. I attach a mystical, perhaps transformative quality to it in my mind, and I know this is dangerous: of such things is rank romanticism born. A cocoa pod balanced just so on a sturdy branch; a plume of mist curling about the mountain’s skulls; a blue devil waiting for you in the bush with tongue outstretched and glistening – these images and others present themselves, but I never forget that 1) it is possible for an islander to exotify her own island, and 2) Paramin isn’t a parable, even if it often features as one. It’s a home.
So it is in Walcott’s “Paramin”, which you can read here at Specimen. It’s one of the poems from Morning, Paramin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), which is a marriage of verse and visual art. In it, Walcott’s poems meet Scottish painter Peter Doig’s landscapes; light-dappled vistas; dark-dotted walls of Lapeyrouse cemetery; bright and cannily rendered Studio Film Club posters. If you have a copy of the book, you’ll know the painting that faces “Paramin” – Untitled (Jungle Painting) – shows a spectral, grey-washed human figure, either retreating into or advancing from tall foliage. Taken literally, the intent of Doig’s painting seems clear. Taken outside of that, the work conjures a fullness of space, as well as its absence; there’s a pool of darkness that swells, off to the side of the figure’s feet, either inviting or menacing as your eyes decide to frame it.
Nothing menaces in “Paramin”, except for the possibility that your own life offers up no such hammocks of rest, when you contemplate your end. This poem is steeped like bush tea in an awareness of its speaker’s mortality. If there are contrivances in the poem, I can’t see them – the address is first person, straddling the median time between a beloved past and an aching present. Not only that, but beyond these easy divisions of temporal shifts, the future waits for the poem’s speaker. I imagine I can see it through the speaker’s eye, curtains billowing like white sails bordering kitchen windows, every passageway thrown open in a high house on a hill.
The past was Paramin. The present is Paramin. The future will be Paramin.
The poem divulges to its reader that “the name said by itself could make us laugh / as if some deep, deep secret was hidden there.” This describes several of the poems in Morning, Paramin, which loop the sustained tape-record of laughter over the assembled armoires of a life (and all the lives that branch from it) steeped in the unknown. For every public Derek Walcott the world has seen, there is, there must be, a private self – a self whose pulse cannot be taken even in the thousands of pages he has offered up as heart-language.
Who can best speak the heart-language of “Paramin”? Is it the “she” whom the speaker of the poem longs to join, the she who “is gone but the hill is still there”? Is it the children, the daughters who inhabit the lush valley which opens up after the steep ascent of the cocoa-scented road, rising? Perhaps it is Paramin itself, “the mountain air and music with no hint of what the name could mean, rocking gently…”
This poem shows us that a world can live in one word, offered on a tongue that has tasted it, tested it, told truths and tales by it. The poem suggests that one word can keep us safe, or keep us ready for the future after death, the place where it is possible to relight the lamp of a word that kept you warm, while you still had a body made flesh. In this way, and in others, “Paramin” does home-work: it points to a place on a map of Trinidad, and takes it into the speaker’s breast, into the speaker’s lungs and spleen and vital organs.
It says. Look. I lived here. I loved here. This is where I once stayed, fathered, made mas and made mistakes, made music and made amends. Look close. Stop on your travels and inhale the cocoa, from which both sweet and bitter things are made. This was/is/will be home.