Omeros by Derek Walcott (1990) FSG (1992) 325 pp
A few years ago I had the good fortune of hearing Mr. Walcott read a portion of his book-length poem Omeros in person. He has an incredible voice — soft and deep — and the beautiful language really struck me. I bought the book and began to read it, though when it didn’t flow as naturally for me as when Walcott read it I put it down. Then a month or two ago I heard a feature on the BBC World Service Book Club about the poem (just a week ago the same program convinced me it’s time I gave Toni Morrison’s Beloved another read, even though I didn’t like it the first time). I decided that Omeros must be approached again.
(Incidentally, the painting on the cover was also done by Walcott)
This is the only modern epic (though Walcott says he doesn’t see this poem as “epic”) poem I’ve read, so I have no ability to compare it to what else is being done today. Walcott himself has written a few others (e.g., Tiepolos Hound and Prodigal). However, I have read a few of the classics — The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Aeneid, and The Divine Comedy — and their power stretches over the centuries. Omeros pays tribute to all of these poems: “Omeros” is Greek for Homer; the poem’s meter is hexameter; he makes great use of compound words, as Beowulf; and the structure of the verse is terza rima, as The Divine Comedy). Surely the tribute is not limited to these quite obvious schemes, but they were the ones that I could point out. This appropriation is entirely appropriate: Walcott is not just being a virtuoso; one of the largest themes in the book is the influence of history, how things that happened once, even if not remembered, still leave their mark. Many of the allusions are done out of the spirit of memory, not mimicry.
This modern-day epic poem is centered on the Island of St. Lucia in the Carribean. Two of the main characters, though there are other threads to the story, are named Achille and Hector. They . . . well, let Walcott introduce them:
Hector came out from the shade. And Achille, the
moment he saw him carrying the cutlass, un homme
fou, a madman eaten with envy, replaced the tin
he had borrowed from Hector’s canoe neatly back in the prow
of Hector’s boat. Then Achille, who had had enough
of this madman, wiped and hefted his own blade.
And now the villagers emerged from the green shade
of the almonds and wax-leaved manchineels, for the face-off
that Hector wanted. Achille walked off and waited
at the warm shallow’s edge. Hector strode towards him.
The villagers followed, as the surf abated
its sound, its fear cowering at the beach’s rim.
Then, far out at sea, in a sparkling shower
arrows of rain arched from the emerald breakwater
of the reef, the shafts travelling with clear power
in the sun, and behind them, ranged for the slaughter,
stood villagers, shouting, with a sound like the shoal,
and hoisting armes to the light. Hector ran, splashing
in shallows mixed with the drizzle, towards Achille,
his cutlasss lifted. The surf, in anger, gnashing
its tail like a foaming dogfight. Men can kill
their own brothers in rage, but the madman who tore
Achille’s undershirt from one shoulder also tore
at his heart. The rage that felt against Hector
was shame. To go crazy for an old bailing tin
crusted with rust! The duel of these fishermen
was over a shadow and its name was Helen.
Later we get: ‘Helen said: “Girl, I pregnant, / but I don’t know for who.” Another Homeric echo is a blind poet named Seven Seas. And it is during his first introduction that we get the Homeric invocation of the muse, who is Homer himself here.
Except for one hand he sat as still as marble,
with his egg-white eyes, fingers recounting the past
of another sea, measured by the stroking oars.
O open this day with the conch’s moan, Omeros,
as you did in my boyhood, when I was a noun
gently exhaled from the palate of the sunrise.
As you can see, there are many odes to Homer in particular in this poem. However, one should not be under the impression that Walcott is revising one of Homer’s epics, juxtaposing the modern Caribbean with Homer’s Aegean; this is no Ulysses, and Walcott is not attempting to redo what Joyce did. On the contrary, alluding to Homer is only one of the ways this book reaches across time to show just how connected, or disconnected, things really are. And St. Lucia — with its wealth of cultural heritage bearing from Europe, Africa, and the Americas, not to mention its own unique history of colonization, slavery, and tourism — is a perfect setting for such a work.
For example, one part of the book that stood out to me the first time was the history of slavery on the island. The opening lines of the book belong to Philoctete, as he shows off the island to some tourists and eventually, for some extra money, shows them a scar on his leg caused by a rusty anchor. A few pages later, we are taken to see the beginning of the scar:
“Mais qui ca qui rivait-‘ous. Philoctete?”
“But what is wrong wif you, Philoctete?”
“I am blest
wif this wound, Ma Kilman, qui pas ka querir piece.
Which will never heal.”
“Well, you musr take it easy.
Go home and lie down, give the foot a lickle rest.”
Philoctet, his trouser-legs rolled, stares out to sea
from the worn rumshop window. The itch in the sore
tingles like the tendrils of the anemone,
and the ouffed blister of Portuguese man-o’-war.
He believed the swelling came from the chained ankles
of his grandfathers. Or else why was there no cure?
That the cross he carried was not only the anchor’s
but that of his race, for a village black and poor
as the pigs that rooted in its burning garbage,
then were hooked on the anchors of the abattoir.
Now, Philoctete has no memory of slavery. Those belong to his ancestors. What he can see is more the resonance, or the signal, of slavery. Incidentally, we know from the first page that the wound is eventually cured, but this is no sentimental journey, giving humans more credit than they deserve.
Moving away from direct Homeric reference, there is also Major Plunkett and his wife Maud. We first meet him sipping a Guinness, uncomfortable with his middle-class Britishness. This is almost sans Homer, but Major Plunkett is looking for a son. And like other characters in the book, Plunkett is wounded. It is here that Walcott inserts himself into the work for the first time:
This wound I have stitched into Plunkett’s character.
He has to be wounded, affliction is one theme
of this work, this fiction, since every “I” is a
fiction finally. Phantom narrator, resume:
Getting through this book is no easy endeavor. The layers of meaning are in place for years and years of dedicated scholarship, something most of us are not in a position to take on. However, there is still much to be gleaned from this book on a first read, and it is an enjoyable experience. In fact my only major problem with it — and it’s a problem I have when I read poetry in general — is that often I’m distracted by the beauty of the language and don’t pay attention to what it is actually saying. I get sound but no meaning. Many times I read a paragraph, or an entire section, and couldn’t tell someone next to me what it was about. This is by no means a failing of the book. It’s just another layer of skill to be enjoyed in a book worth the time.