Hector was buried near the sea he had loved once.

I found out about Derek Walcott just after I’d nestled myself into a booth at a Pizza Hut near Lancaster.

Despite the fact that he’d been ill for years, and that he was quite old, I still found myself profoundly sad, in that booth awaiting my overdose of breadsticks.

Jesus, Tangents, you’re thinking. Why, of all the local joints you could’ve chosen, would you eat at a Pizza Hut?

There is something fleeting, something whimsical about Pizza Hut. It starts with the architecture of each standalone building, with its square, hut-like roof, and extends backward in time to the early 1990s and the Book It reading rewards program. I devoured “chapter books” like I can devour a good trash pizza and had a new Book It certificate for a personal pizza at every period my class issued them. It didn’t matter that I rarely got to enjoy said pizza (it was expensive for a single mom, even with the free offer, and we didn’t have a car in which to get there), the simple fact that I was swimming in Book Its the way Scrooge McDuck swims in his gold coins was enough. Pizza Hut was the Olympus of my childhood gastro-aspirations.

But back to Walcott. A friend posted a bit of one of his poems to her Instagram, with the caption “rip Derek Walcott” and in that booth, time stopped for a moment. It always sounds a little silly to me when people say a certain something changed their lives, but Omeros changed mine. In college, I went from studying American Lit to Harlem Renaissance Lit to Caribbean Diaspora Lit, largely thanks to the influence and recommendations of one of my professors (and my boredom with the “Canon”). As all good literature does, it expanded my world. Where I’d grown tired of the well-documented themes and issues and environments written by American authors, reading about landscapes and traditions I’d not experienced, and rolling through different languages and foods and colors felt like it was important. It gave life context, and frames. And it made me think about the literature I was used to in new and different ways. I saw interconnectivity across era and continents and tried to analyze and write about those connections. On the suggestion of that professor, I considered grad school — something I’d never thought was an option.

When it was time to write my undergrad thesis, I took four cornerstone texts — Omeros, a work of poetry by Kamau Braithwaite, a novel based on a historical event, and the Odyssey — and tried with some success to weave together a thematic tapestry reaching back into time, documenting the Diasporic displacement and search for “home” as contemporary Odysseys, while acknowledging and grappling with the reasons the three Caribbean texts couldn’t be considered as such.

Maybe, as a country, we’re stagnant and not very excited by education because the reading curricula approved by localities and/or states are unrelatable and boring. How do we learn to exist together if we don’t read, or if we just read the same things over and over again? How do we not become bored if we read things we already live and know? Growth comes from challenge, which requires discomfort. Discomfort doesn’t necessarily need to be an awkward conversation; it can be as simple as reading a story to which you have no real relatable connection. More often than not, though, great literature can help people find common ground through empathy for its characters. I can’t relate to feeling displaced because of the Slave Trade. That is never going to be a part of my life. I do, however, recognize what it’s like to not quite feel like you have a home. Nowhere feels as home is supposed to, and I’m forever searching for somewhere that does.

That’s probably why I love Homer’s Odyssey to the point of absurdity, and Walcott’s Omeros gave that love a whole new dimension. Walcott writes with the precision owned by the greatest poets, and the first time I read Omeros, it brought to life for me the colors and culture of St. Lucia so vividly I can still see them in my mind today. The way he interprets Homer’s characters sparks my imagination, gently breaks my heart, nourishes my soul. It’s like reading a vibrant painting. Poetry was never really my jam, but Derek Walcott is, far and away, my favorite poet, and Omeros one of my favorite works.

“Seven Seas and Helen

did not come nearer. Achille had carried an oar
to the church and propped it outside with the red tin.
Now his voice strengthened. He said: ‘Mate, this is your spear,’
and laid the oar slowly, the same way he had placed
the parallel oars in the hull of the gommier
the day the African swift and its shadow raced.
And this was the prayer that Achille could not utter:
‘The spear that I give you, my friend, is only wood.
Vexation is past. I know how well you treat her.
You never know my admiration, when you stood
crossing the sun at the bow of the long canoe
with the plates of your chest like a shield; I would say
any enemy so was a compliment. ’Cause no
African ever hurled his wide seine at the bay
by which he was born with such beauty. You hear me? Men
did not know you like me. All right. Sleep good. Good night.’
Achille moved Philoctete’s hand, then he saw Helen
standing alone and veiled in the widowing light.
Then he reached down to the grave and lifted the tin
to her. Helen nodded. A wind blew out the sun.”
Walcott was a prolific writer, poet and author. His works and influence are well-documented and were lauded in obituaries across the literate media these past few days. Most outlets also give space to the sexual harassment accusation brought against him in the early 80s (as they should). Unlike the titans of today, he wasn’t toppled by the allegations (“It was another time,” sighs every woman ever). He continued to write. He won the Nobel prize in 1992. He produced a Broadway play with Paul Simon in 1998. In 2009, Walcott rescinded his name for consideration for a professorship after those allegations were brought to light, and he still continued to have a career. He remained St. Lucia’s Nobel laureate and proudest son. I can’t divorce my celebration of him, and of his work, from those allegations — nor will I — and as with all of my male heroes who likely (or definitely) committed untoward or heinous acts against women, I grapple with the conflict between loving their art and holding sadness, disappointment and anger toward them.
Which brings me back to that booth in Pizza Hut off of highway 30, sipping on a Wild Cherry Pepsi and scrolling through tributes to him on Twitter. Derek Walcott’s words helped give a voice to something I hadn’t understood within myself until I read them. It felt oddly fitting that he died on the day I left the place I’d tried so hard to make my final home. It felt, if you’ll allow it, poetic.

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