Playwrights of The Week

Derek Walcott Response on Custos

The poem “The Star-Apple Kingdom” starts with this pastoral painting. How do you get from that to the Caribbean? From paint to words. Is that a fair transition? Are you asking too much of your readers that way? First of all tell me about custos.

Derek Walcott replied saying “custos is an example of the things that happen in language in the Caribbean. A custos is a custodian. A Latin custos—custodoes meaning a god. It’s an old Jamaican word which may still be used for someone in charge of a parish, appointed by the government, I think. The custos of a parish is the guard.

Now this is a large word, an imperial word from England. So this person would’ve been appointed to be the district officer or custos of a place. I think that’s what it is.

Here’s a purely surviving Latin word. From one empire to the other, Roman to British to Jamaica. In active survival. Here’s the custos—here’s a man talking a Latin word. Someone can say, well this happens all over the world but it doesn t.

It’s more focused in the Caribbean. Because of the very intensity of the space. It is a small place. Each island is smaller— the intensity or variation from one island to another makes each language sometimes a completely different language, a difference between, say, Martinique and St. Lucia.”

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