Southern Sublime

Morning, Paramin

by Derek Walcott and Peter Doig
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 108 pp., $35.00

The solitary artist on the snowy ridge of Peter Doig’s Figure in Mountain Landscape (1997–1998) couldn’t be farther from the Caribbean. Back turned, he looks over his easel toward a smattering of evergreens on a mauve hillside. It is winter, but there is hardly any white on the canvas, and the distant lime-green mountains suggest the arrival of spring. The painter, a flame in the wilderness, seems almost to smolder, covered in jagged pink patches as though pictured by a thermographic camera.

Peter Doig/PinchukArtCentre Collection
Peter Doig: J.M. at Paragon, 2004

Derek Walcott’s poem on the facing page begins with serene indifference to climate or continent, describing the painter as the poet’s houseguest. A studio is mentioned; shortly thereafter, a pool. Discrepancies accumulate and we begin to wonder where, between text and image, we have disembarked. But the poem’s final lines excuse this sleight of land, invoking the painter’s peripatetic biography and the deceptive license of his art:

Drawing is a sort of duplicity,
he joins them, the pouis and gommier’s avalanche,
after the crisp, fierce snow’s ferocity
has left her tattered fabric on a branch,
as foam or snowfall whiten from one brush
the double climate that he keeps inside
the landscapes that astound him with their ambush.

Two crafts converge in Morning, Paramin, an entrancing collection that couples fifty-one of Doig’s paintings with answering verses from Walcott. Each pair is a meditation on privacy and possession, transience and belonging, youth, mortality, inheritance—and how all of these disclose themselves in landscape. Snowbound Canadian houses mingle with costumed carnival apparitions; the windows of a Vienna picture shop repeat themselves in the gaps of a sea wall; a lion haunts the barred entrance of a yellow prison. But the book centers on Trinidad, an island both artists have called home. Doig, who was born in Edinburgh and grew up in Canada, spent his early childhood in Port of Spain and resettled nearby in 2002. Walcott built his career there; in 1959 (the year of his collaborator’s birth) he founded the Trinidad Theater Workshop.

Doig couldn’t have asked for a more daunting appraiser than the eighty-seven-year-old Nobel laureate. No one has scrutinized the Caribbean with more devotion, sensitivity, and protectiveness than Walcott, a St. Lucian poet, playwright, and painter who has made its landscape the touchstone of his art. He flew to Montreal in 2014 for Doig’s exhibition “No Foreign Lands,” urged by the French editor Harry Jancovici, who after reading Walcott on Caribbean painting proposed a joint project. It began with the artist steering Walcott through the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, watching from behind his wheelchair as he evaluated each painting, inaugurating the series of exchanges that would become Morning, Paramin.

The collaborators are in many ways fellow travelers, sharing an obstinate attachment to “outmoded” mediums (figurative painting, formal poetry)…

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