Derek Walcott pays tribute to St Lucian cultural activist

From left: Derek Walcott, Monsignor Patrick Anthony and George ‘Fish’ Alphonse share a hearty laugh. (Photo by Cecil Fevrier)

George ‘Fish’ Alphonse is the Special Events Officer at the Cultural Development Foundation in St Lucia and a well known cultural activist. He recently got a pleasant surprise from none other than Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott. Walcott is known to be deeply proud of his homeland’s Creole cultural heritage which is often reflected in his work.

In honor of Alphonse who has dedicated his life to preserving and promoting St Lucia’s cultural traditions, including its two flower festivals, La Rose and La Marguerite, Walcott dedicated a new poem to him entitled The War of the Flowers.  

The La Rose and La Marguerite festivals are kept alive by two flower societies which are rooted in St Lucia’s Creole communities. In keeping with local tradition, every year they hold a grande fete – an elaborate and colourful celebration of pomp and pageantry. 

The groups are hierarchically structured with a King and Queen as head of each society and they’re accompanied by their royal entourage of dukes, duch­esses, princes and princesses. The royals preside over their subjects comprising of the military and police, magistrates, doctors, nurses and other members of the pecking order, and supporters. The societies are patterned after the socioeconomic structure and dynamics that prevailed during St Lucia’s old colonial days, and reflect the values, passions and rivalries that characterized life on the island under the colonial domination of France and England. St Lucia changed hands between the French and English fourteen times.

The grade fete is preceded by several months of nightly singing called “séances.” Church services are held through­out the island followed by processions through the streets. An evening is set aside for a sumptuous banquet to which dignitaries and leading personalities are invited. They wrap up the evening with folk dances, including the Quadrille, the Mappa and the Belair. Strict protocol is observed at those séances with visitors and participant, upon entering, bowing  to the King and Queen who are present with their court. The soldiers and police enforce regulations against any disorder or breaches of protocol. Offenders are hauled before a magistrate for a mock trial and then fined.

Choiseul community La Rose group (Photo source: Choiseul St Lucia.com)

Each society has a patron saint on whose feast day the grande fete is celebrated. The Roses hold theirs on August 30, the feast of St. Rose de Lima. For the Marguerites it’s October 17, the feast day of St. Margaret Mary Alacocque, Ultimately the two societies try to outdo each other in pomp and pageantry and go all out to put on their best performances, even trading barbs and witticisms. Each group is determined to win the war of the flowers. It’s all done in jest.  Following is Walcott’s poem which was published exclusively in the Star newspaper in St Lucia.

The War of the Flowers

(for Fish Alphonse)

The battle of the flowers
is odorous and sweet;
they share each other’s powers:
the rose, the marguerite.

The croton hoists between them
its flag of many colours,
no music for its emblem
no army like the others;

who with sharp shouts and answers
will march to fighting words,
with admirals and commanders,
sashes and wooden swords.

But one thing that is curious
is that they never meet,
they are far, but still furious,
the rose, the marguerite.

Their clash is months apart
but soft each flower falls,
the rose with its red heart
the daisy’s with its waltz.

With anthems loud and heated
and cries that dare defeat,
neither one is defeated:
the rose, the marguerite.

They are, as none supposes
together not apart;
violet is the daisy, the rose is
the banner of the heart.

Would that our scarred earth could contain
such a sweet violence
these flowers fighting to remain
not enemies, but friends.

Ah violet of the daisy,
no victory, no defeat;
their woundless wars amaze me,
the rose, the marguerite.

—Derek Walcott, 2011

George ‘Fish’ Alphonse told the STAR that he was very surprised when he opened the weekend newspaper to see a poem by Walcott dedicated to him.

“It was very humbling. I went over the words several times. I feel so blessed. Derek Walcott’s recognition means more than anything,” said Alphonse. The poem was published the same week St Lucia marked the celebration of the La Rose Festival (August 30).

Alphonse further told the STAR: “The poem made me feel as if I was getting somewhere even though the country has not realized that as yet. At least there is someone who understands the importance of trying to preserve our flower festivals, so that our culture remains vibrant. Someone who understands the battle of the flowers is not a brutal one. Anything I can do to ensure that people understand the culture of the flowers, the deep meaning, I will do. I was not even aware he [Walcott] was paying attention and it is humbling. This is the honourable Derek Walcott who knows culture and understands what it is about and what it should be doing and somewhere along the lines I guess he heard my calls on certain things as far as it relates to the festivals. I am honoured and humbled.”

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