A Parting Gift: Derek Walcott’s “THE SEASON OF PHANTASMAL PEACE”


A peculiar feeling, I wonder if you’ve had it: I stop at a stoplight not far from our house. I know this light well; ten thousand times it’s turned red on me and always stays red at least three beats too long. On the southeast corner, to my left as I wait, is a homegrown karate studio called Progressive Martial Arts. It’s cracked and fallen whitewash gives the small concrete building all the charm of an oft-washed and tumbled dollar bill. A large single pane of glass frames the gi-clad students who chop, kick and roll through their katas. I watch them. My blue Toyota, which needs hubcaps, idles. I watch, and as I watch it all seems altered, made strange, like a photographic negative of this mundane occurrence of which I and my idling car have ten thousand times been a part. Sam has died.


The genius of Cezanne was the flattened canvas. Perspective, he saw, was the great illusion. Mt. St. Victoire becomes a blue density as near as the greens, roses and ochers of the abutting valley forest and towns. Everything in a pervasive visual present tense. Beautiful, but imagine living in such a world.




What settles over me, as surely as the damp florescent light settles over the sweating students inside the studio, is that I will never again stop at this traffic light, watch the karate dance, then continue on the one and a half minutes to my house where Sam waits, where Sam plants the leeks he’s sprouted, where Sam practices Beethoven’s Op. 111., where Sam composes, or arranges American carols for the Symphony’s Christmas concert, where he revolves in the kitchen preparing his special Moroccan lentil soup, where he helps the dog say her prayers over her food bowl, where he will hug me, where we will, all too frequently, fail each others’ tests of patience.


I’m not, in common parlance, a believer. And yet my love for God, or the idea of God, has so far proved intransigent against all my well-founded protestations. I lay them like dynamite against the stone face of faith and all that blasts forth are chalices and wafers. I’ve learned to accept this. But here’s one thing I cannot accept, that God would pull a stunt like giving someone a long-term, complex, finally terminal illness because it expedites some “divine plan”. Nor do I believe God would do this for some blithe moral imperative, either “for the good” of the sufferer, or, worse, those around him. I could never worship such a self-important busybody. What I believe is that, if there is a God, God inheres somehow in Enormity itself. Death is an enormity. I crumple before it in rage, grief, and terror as before a flaming bush. I want no part of it. But that, to the bush, is neither here nor there. And along with God, or the idea of God, along with the furnace blast, the Holy Danger the meeting of God can sometimes entail, there comes, too, so I am told, the idea of a promised land.


The light changes. I leave the martial dance to the dancers. I drive across flattened space the no distance at all to my front door. The bush breaks into flame. Can’t very well stay out on the front porch.


Sam. For you, my love:


Then all the nations of birds lifted together
the huge net of the shadows of this earth
in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
stitching and crossing it. They lifted up
the shadows of long pines down trackless slopes,
the shadows of glass-faced towers down evening streets,
the shadow of a frail plant on a city sill—
the net rising soundless as night, the birds’ cries soundless, until
there was no longer dusk, or season, decline, or weather,
only this passage of phantasmal light,
that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever.

And men could not see, looking up, what the wild geese drew,
what the ospreys trailed behind them in silvery ropes
that flashed in the icy sunlight; they could not hear
battalions of starlings waging peaceful cries,
bearing the net higher, covering this world
like the vines of an orchard, or a mother drawing
the trembling gauze over the trembling eyes
of a child fluttering to sleep;
it was the light
that you will see at evening on the side of a hill
in yellow October, and no one hearing knew
what change had brought into the raven’s cawing,
the killdeer’s screech, the ember-circling chough
such an immense, soundless, and high concern
for the fields and cities where birds belong,
except it was their seasonal passing, Love,
made seasonless, or, from the high privilege of their birth,
something brighter than pity for the wingless ones
below them who shared dark holes in windows and in houses,
and higher they lifted the net with soundless voices
above all change, betrayals of falling suns,
and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.

— Derek Walcott

 Sam and the little girl

 SAMUEL B. LANCASTER, July 9, 1944 – May 11, 2013

12 Responses to A Parting Gift: Derek Walcott’s “THE SEASON OF PHANTASMAL PEACE”

  1. David, I am so very sorry you’ve lost Sam. I feel almost silly for being this heartsick about the death of someone I never met and for the pain of a man I only know through his posts, but heartsick is what I feel. I pray the love and support of family and friends keeps you sane and grounded and moving until you start to feel like you want to be alive and happy again.

    • Wendy. Deaf children deprived of the chance to learn sign language will develop their own. It will be complex, it will have syntax and tenses, it will be subtle, and it will, in every way, serve as would a sign language in common use. The human imperative to connect is as relentless a force as any in nature. Our connection, yours and mine, is tenuous, fleeting, sporadic – such is the medium – but for all that, it is established. No way around it. And I thank you for your acknowledgement of that connection. Your good wishes and prayers I receive humbly and with love. Months ago, when you told me you would be saying a certain Buddhist prayer for Sam, I told him about it, I told him that a kind woman he’d never met was blessing him in Ohio. He was deeply moved. So, connection in our post-modern world is less dependent than in previous epochs on physical contact, but no less valued and valuable by those who recognize its gifts. Again, Wendy, thank you.

      • David, when you are ready watch What Dreams May Come with the alternate ending. It’s the most beautiful explanation for the kind of loss you have just experienced. It is a Buddhist view of life and death, and perhaps of this kind of post-modern connection, and it brings me comfort when I think about the loss of those I love.
        Sam was blessed to have you with him and you will be with him again. I believe you have spent other lives with him and will spend lives with him again. I know that is not your belief, but I know you have an open heart and open mind and any beautiful story of loss and reconnecting is moving so watch the film as a beautiful story. I will pray for you and Sam to be reunited soon.

  2. Avatar terri c
    terri c says:

    Heartbreakingly beautiful.

    • Terri, you generous, loving spirit. Where would I have been through all this, and where Sam, who needed a quiet presence which I, in my turmoil, could rarely provide, without you.

  3. Absolutely beautiful poem David. I can feel your loss. I do believe you will be with Sam again in next life. Love so deep can never be for just one life; it is eternal.

    • Thank you, Jayati, on two counts: first, for stopping by to read my post, as you could could surely have better spent your time reading a great book or more of Derek Walcott’s poems; and second, for your kind words. The thought of being together with Sam again in a next life is beautiful, to be sure. He died a week and a half ago, and I catch myself wondering where he is and when he’s coming back. His illness was protracted and complex, which means I watched him fail for a long time. I am glad that he has been released from that suffering, but it is, more or less, an intellectual gladness. The truth is, I am a fundamentally selfish being and I selfishly want him back. If you read this reply, and feel so inclined, I would love to hear from what religious or spiritual tradition you come.

      The Walcott is ravishing, isn’t it. I consider it one of the glories of the English language. It evokes that unsayable thing in which I want Sam to be enfolded. And all of us.

      • Hello David. I am born a Hindu but like you, my idea of God is not strictly in accordance with any particular religion. I just feel His/Her presence at certain moments. And I do believe that true love lasts beyond a life time.

  4. Dear David,
    Please accept my most profound sympathy for the loss of your beloved Sam. It is difficult for me to offer some kind of encomium for him, having never known him, but having read your beautiful post, or posts, the genuine elegance and grace of the man cannot be doubted or forgotten, even from such a distance as a stranger.
    I am so very sorry.

  5. Avatar Pamela Lancaster
    Pamela Lancaster says:

    Dearest David, I loved your post as much as the poem, the poem more like a painting your post like an Augustinian confession, personal, beautifully written.

    Last we corresponded you reminded me of the tremendous amount of love Sam offered, and I was moved remembering that love of Sam’s that washed itself over my childhood. I spent much of my adult life looking for, hunting down,trying to revive that love. At the end I’m guessing that I carry it with me still.

    I did not respond to your wonderful email about Sam’s love – though I desired to respond,because a flood washed over our home and our life, disabling us almost as completely as grief disables. Grieving and remembering were put on hold as we moved desks and green couches out of the mud and sorted and tossed old photos, Emma’s drawings or old letters that were sodden. Standing in my office and schoolroom, the place of such day to day living and busy-ness, calf deep in water only days after Sam’s death was so Jungian – he would have loved the image.

    I think of you often and pray for you as I box my own way through grief -that untamable, necessary and infuriating beast. Sending Love, Pamela

  6. Avatar Corey Johnson
    Corey Johnson says:

    David, Lori and I can only thank you and Sam for the gift you provided our boys in music and the incredible love and affection you have had for Chase and Konrad. My faith and beliefs were tested by the death of a niece and illness to my mother. I have never shared the same “faith” I was raised in since. Sam was an incredible human being, I am fortunate to have known him, heard him perform and break bread with you both. My best to you and thank you for the impact you both have had on my sons!! Corey

  7. David, I don’t know you, and it is three years after you wrote this post, but I want to tell you that it moved me deeply. I came here to read Wolcott’s poem, which is beautiful, extraordinary, and true, but what moved me was your story of love, grief, and hope in something eternal. I am Anglican but also Buddhist, and yet dont accept much dogma. I do believe this life is not all there is, and that the love my own partner and I share is somehow more than we are capable of understanding. And I hope especially that you have been able to go on without him, never forgetting, but strengthened by what you had together in all its concreteness and its mystery.