On Walcott and Doig by Maria Cristina Fumagalli
There was an old gardener in my village in Italy, about twenty-five years ago, who after his wife’s death, decided to go around wearing her necklaces and brooches. They had been together for more than sixty years and, as he once whispered to me in his deep, guttural dialect, this was his way to feel her close to his heart and to feel himself again. Someone should write about this, I remember thinking, someone who could pay homage to the deep humanity of this gesture, to the simple world it sprang from and to the authenticity of this love. After all these years, I had forgotten about old Michele but when I read ‘Lapeyrouse Wall’ by Derek Walcott and saw the painting by Peter Doig which appears next to it in Morning, Paramin (2016) — a new collection where Walcott’s words are put in a sustained dialogue with Doig’s work — it all came back to me. Finally, Michele’s spirit has posthumously found its perfect form(s).
The Lapeyrouse Wall is one of the many Trinidadian landmarks evoked in a book which could be seen as a map of Doig’s and Walcott’s sensitivity to, and enthusiasm for the island, its culture, landscape and people. Despite not being natives of Trinidad, in fact, they have both developed a strong bond with it and a deep-felt sense of belonging. In the poem ‘A Lion is in the Streets III’, Walcott argues that Doig has earned the right to ‘belong’ because he paints Trinidadian ‘bareback’ streets –but, by extension, all Trinidadian subjects– with ‘a skill achieved by love and mental membership’ (99). ‘Mental membership’ requires a deliberate effort to become part of a landscape instead of simply being someone who depicts it from outside. In Figure in Mountain Landscape (1997-98), a painting based on a photograph of the Canadian painter Franklin Carmichael at work en plein air, Doig presents us precisely with an artist who becomes part of the (snowy) landscape he is painting as the landscape becomes part of him. As Doig celebrates Carmichael’s deep love for the Ontarian wilderness, the poem by Walcott that accompanies the painting and shares its title identifies Doig as someone who keeps a ‘double climate’ inside — his brush has whitened both ocean foam and snowfall — but, as Walcott forcefully puts elsewhere, who also truly ‘belongs’ in the ‘lowering green emptiness’ of Trinidad, in its ‘craziness,’ ‘its immense variety of racial choice’, ‘all of its languages’, ‘all its customs’, ‘its music’ (9, 85,49,85).