Derek Walcott: Tiepolo's Hound
After Omeros proved his mastery of the epic poem in 1990, and even after the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature fortified his place among the great writers of the world, Derek Walcott couldn’t distract the still-diligent and meticulous craftsman in him from completing yet another masterpiece. Tiepolo's Hound, published in 2000, is a book-length poem that combines the stories of two painters—told in verse—with Walcott's own watercolor and oil paintings.
Written entirely in alternately rhymed couplets, the imagery of Tiepolo's Hound is informed by the landscapes of St. Thomas, St. Lucia, and Paris, while the story of the poem follows two narratives: one of the Caribbean-born painter Camille Pissarro, the other of Walcott himself, taking up the persona of a poet and failed painter. Pissarro's great urge in the book is to move to Paris to pursue his painting career, a journey Walcott describes with an Impressionist’s vivid, delicate sensibility. Meanwhile, the Walcott character recalls a painting he saw when he was a young man visiting New York City:
On my first trip to the Modern I turned a corner,
rooted before the ridged linen of a Cèzanne.
A still life. I thought how clean his brushes were!
Across that distance light was my first lesson.
I remember stairs in couplets. The Metropolitan’s
marble authority, I remember being
stunned as I studied the exact expanse
of a Renaissance feast, the art of seeing.
Then I caught a slash of pink on the inner thigh
of a white hound entering the cave of a table,
so exact in its lucency at The Feast of Levi,
I felt my heart halt.
The perfectly rendered hound captures the poet’s imagination—even as Walcott tells Pissarro’s story, the hound is a recurring presence, a reference point throughout the book. Though Walcott searches for it his entire life, he is unable to find the painting again—a symbol of Walcott’s unfulfillment as a painter, the object of a pursuit that has eluded him.
Despite this realization, the parallels between Pissarro and Walcott are numerous. Both have Caribbean origins, both are artists, and both, through self-exile, are interminably tied to their homeland. St. Thomas follows Pissarro—as does Walcott’s St. Lucia—to Paris by more than its name alone:
Doubt was his patron saint, it was his island’s,
the saint who probed the holes in his Saviour’s hands
(despite the parenthetical rainbow of providence)
and questioned resurrection; its seven bright bands.
Saint Thomas, the skeptic, Saint Lucia, the blind
martyr who on a tray carried her own eyes,
the hymn of black smoke, wreath of the trade wind,
confirming their ascent to paradise.
Ultimately, Tiepolo’s Hound is about the relationship of painting and writing. Language and image aren’t conflicting media but complement one another. With sharp attention to color, architecture, and the movement of the eye, Tiepolo’s Hound opens with these lines:
They stroll on Sundays down Dronningens Street,
passing the bank and the small island shops
quiet as drawings, keeping from the heat
through Danish arches until the street stops
at the blue, gusting harbour, where like commas
in a shop ledger gulls tick the lined waves.
The book is made complete by its 26 full-color reproductions of Walcott’s own paintings, which serve as points of reference while Pissarro lives in Paris. The watercolor and oil works, painted by Walcott between 1982 and 1999, mostly depict scenes from the Caribbean—beach scenes of boats and swimmers and rocks and waves, open fields, horses, churches, men playing music or dominos. The paintings are awash with pastel colors, and tropical blues, greens, and pinks. It's a palette that reappears consistently in the poetry, colors and images that never fully escape the poet.