Robert Levine has self-published two books of poetry. He's currently working on a long poem about his hometown of Greenbelt, Maryland.
Maybe the approaching end of the millennium put poets in a retrospective mood, wishing to draw some lesson from their culture’s or locale’s heritage. Maybe the advent of a new millennium impelled them to adapt these lessons to contemporary reality. Maybe, just maybe, it was sheer coincidence. But the 1990s saw several notable book-length narrative poems incorporating history and/or mythology to a major extent: Rita Dove’s Mother Love, W. S. Merwin’s The Folding Cliffs, Les Murray’s Fredy Neptune. True, as Robert B. Shaw points out in his essay “Contrived Corridors: History and Postmodern Poetry,” “History, often accompanied by myth, is a presence in many canonical long poems” of modernism, such as “The Waste Land, The Bridge, Paterson, The Anathémata, The Cantos” (79). But the works he lists span about a quarter of a century; the concentration of similar poems within a single decade makes one wonder whether something was in the air, or water, conducive to their creation during that time.
The book that kicked off this fin-de-siècle trend was Omeros, Derek Walcott’s epic tribute to his native St. Lucia published in 1990, and Walcott’s March 2017 death provides an impetus for revisiting it. Walcott’s poem integrates history and mythology into its narrative to forge its own myth of St. Lucia, a schema for representing the island’s reality—understanding its past, embracing its present, and aspiring to shape its future—as a product of the cultures of both Africa and Europe. This myth is rich and complex, cohesive and comprehensive, but not every aspect of it is coherent or comprehensible.
Omeros models its main plot on the Iliad; as the book itself explains, its title is “Homer” in Greek. Achille, a St. Lucian fisherman, vies for the love of local beauty Helen with Hector, who abandons fishing for the fast money in driving a taxi van. Helen symbolizes the island itself, crowned by twin mountains and changing hands between Britain and France fourteen times—“her breasts were its Pitons/… for her Gaul and Briton/had mounted fort and redoubt” (31)—just as she swings unpredictably between her two lovers, for which it was nicknamed “the Helen of the West Indies.” An array of subplots augments this conflict. British expatriate Major Dennis Plunkett (really a sergeant major, retired) stands in platonic awe of Helen, whom he once employed as a housekeeper and whom his wife Maud reviles for stealing a dress. He also pities her and her island’s presumed lack of history and sets out to research and write it. Walcott extends the poem’s Homeric parallel in the figure of Philoctetes, an old former fisherman with an unhealed wound on his leg from a rusty anchor; as with his mythological namesake, his wound emits a foul odor, which leads him to live in relative isolation. And the poem throughout features Walcott himself as the narrator musing on his relationship to the island, advised by the ghost of the father who died when he was a child to love St. Lucia by leaving it to reside in the United States and travel through Europe.
Like many contemporary narrative poems, however, Omeros emphasizes theme more than plot, although aspects of theme impact the narrative and its inclusion of history and myth. Its dominant theme is St. Lucia’s (and by extension the Caribbean’s) creation of a syncretic identity. Walcott has preoccupied himself with this subject for his entire career: in his famous early poem “A Far Cry From Africa,” he sees himself, “divided to the vein” and “poisoned with the blood of both,” as a microcosm of the Caribbean’s double European and African heritage (Collected Poems, 18). For Walcott, this has too often expressed itself or been conceived as separate dual heritages rather than a hybrid heritage, slavery and its legacy keeping the region’s black majority and white minority apart. Walcott advances an alternative conception of West Indian identity that acknowledges each side of its origins. “Walcott rejects both the literature of recrimination (of the descendants of the slave) and the literature of remorse (of the descendants of the colonizer) because they remain locked in a Manichean dialectics, reinscribing and perpetuating a negative pattern,” writes Paula Burnett in Derek Walcott: Politics and Poetics. “For Walcott, maturity is the ‘assimilation of the features of every ancestor’ …” (3).
Accordingly, Omeros incorporates both the black and the white experience in St. Lucia in its thematics. Philoctete the wounded fisherman most forcefully represents the black perspective. Regarding his wound, Philoctete “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 …” (19). Metaphorically, the gash in his shin was left by his ancestors’ leg irons, tearing into him a century and a half after emancipation sundered them in the physical and legal senses—just as his people still suffer, both externally and internally, as a result of slavery. The anchor that actually wounded Philoctete reflects this deeper import of his injury, symbolizing the chains of slavery as well as inability to progress beyond the past.
The trauma of slavery, however, resulted in a deeper trauma: deracination, through the Middle Passage and the passing of generations, from the specifics of Philoctete’s African heritage. In an early scene in Philoctete’s yam garden, where “wind turned the yam leaves like maps of Africa,/their veins bled white,” he gives vent to the pain of his predicament.
When cutlass cut smoke, when cocks surprise their arseholes
by shitting eggs, he cursed, black people go get rest
from God; at which point a fierce cluster of arrows
targeted the sore, and he screamed in the yam row.
He hacked them at the heel, noticing how they curled,
head-down without their roots. He cursed the yams:
You all see what it’s like without roots in this world?”
In Philoctete, Walcott concedes that the recrimination he rejects is understandable, but demonstrates that, as Burnett remarks, it inevitably perpetuates the pain that caused it. Ma Kilman, owner of the bar where Philoctete spends most of his time, wracks her memory for a folk cure among those her elders once practiced, which would cure Philoctete’s spirit by recovering a facet of the African culture lost to him just as it would cure his body (19). Finding a cure for Philoctete’s wound becomes the thematic crux of the poem, more than the pursuit of Helen.
The Plunketts, naturally, represent the European component of St. Lucia and the Caribbean. Dennis Plunkett left Britain for St. Lucia after World War II to assuage the memories of the carnage he witnessed in the North African campaign, and as a reward to his wife for waiting for him. He first appears at a hotel bar, musing ruefully on the colonial history of exploitation that facilitates his own presence on the island, “We helped ourselves/to these green islands like olives from a saucer,//munched on the pith, then spat their sucked stones on a plate …” (25). He spurns the insular society of other former colonists and its feeble trappings of imperial privilege that it tries to perpetuate:
This was their Saturday place, not a corner pub,
not the wrought-iron Victoria. He had resigned
from that haunt of middle-clarse [sic] farts, an old club
with more pompous arses than any flea could find,
a replica of the Raj, with gins-and-tonic
from black, white-jacketed servitors whose sonic
judgment couldn’t distinguish a secondhand-car
salesman from Manchester from the phony pukka
tones of expatriates.
As critic Paul Breslin argues, Plunkett resembles Philoctete in his rootlessness in his island home, although Plunkett’s is voluntary; Breslin calls them “complementary opposites” (252). Philoctete, to release himself from his beholdenness to the past of slavery and move forward in life, must regain access to an earlier African past when his people controlled their own destiny, which he has been deprived of. By contrast, Plunkett has access to his European past: he discovers through his historical research an apparent ancestor of his, a Midshipman Plunkett who died in the Battle of the Saints, a naval sideshow to the American Revolution in which the British defeated the French near St. Lucia. Rather, the past is all Plunkett has access to. As Breslin indicates, he “has been severed from his future: he has no son to carry on his name, no daughter either, and no illusions about the legacy of the vanishing empire”—Plunkett’s sterility reflecting that of his once-dominant native country (253). Hence, Plunkett uses his projected history of St. Lucia to bequeath a legacy to the island paradoxically by delving into the past. Both characters must capture a part of the past in order to advance through time, but they differ in the degree to which circumstance allows them to.
The correspondences between the African and European contributions to St. Lucia continue with Achille’s dream journey to an Africa of centuries past after succumbing to heat stroke while sailing for fish. Achille meets his ancestor Afolabe and senses the connection between them, and thereby the African origin of his Caribbean self, despite their different temporal and geographical backgrounds: “He sought his own features in those of their life-giver,/and saw two worlds mirrored there: the hair was surf/curling round a sea-rock, the forehead a frowning river,//as they swirled in the estuary of a bewildered love …” (136). He settles in Afolabe’s village and learns its culture, discovering the African basis of a St. Lucian holiday custom:
On the day of his feast they wore the same plantain trash
like Philoctete on Christmas. A bannered mitre
of bamboo was placed on his head, a calabash
mask, and skirts that made him both woman and fighter.
That was how they danced at home …
Like Achille, Plunkett discovers a long-lost ancestor and gains awareness of a connection between his ancestral homeland and St. Lucia in his family history (Breslin 253, Hamner 62). To emphasize the equal weight of these two discoveries in St. Lucia’s heritage, the narrator intrudes into Achille’s story to state, “Half of me was with him. One half with the midshipman …” (135, Hamner 75).
Omeros demonstrates the equivalence of St. Lucia’s African and European cultural elements by presenting them not only as parallels but in juxtaposition. Philoctete attends a traditional Christmas feast hosted by Ma Kilman, celebrating a holiday brought to the island by its French and/or British colonizers, then the following day dresses in women’s clothes and dances on stilts with Achille in honor of Jonkonnu, a holiday slaves had carried with them from Africa (272-277, Hamner 144). At the next level of integrating St. Lucia’s twin heritages, Walcott depicts them interacting in personified form. One of the poem’s most delightful passages describes a hurricane as the result of a party thrown by a gathering of West African and Greco-Roman deities
playing any instruments that came into their craniums,
the harp-sighing ripple of a hither-and-zithering sea,
the knucklebone pebbles, the abrupt Shango drums
made Neptune rock in the caves. Fête start! Erzulie
rattling her ra-ra; Ogun, the blacksmith, feeling
No Pain; Damballa winding like a zandoli
lizard, as their huge feet thudded on the ceiling
For the gods aren’t men, they get on well together,
holding a hurricane party in their cloud-house,
and what brings the gods close is the thunderous weather,
where Ogun can fire one with his partner Zeus.
At the zenith of this union of identities, Walcott conflates them. In the dream sequence that opens Book Seven, the narrator sees Homer rise out of the sea and stride onto the beach; suddenly the “marble head” darkens and transforms into Seven Seas, an old blind singer and a kind of New World griot of the poem’s St. Lucian town.
… no sooner was the head
of the blind plaster-bust clear than its brow was crossed
by a mantling cloud and its visage reappeared
with ebony hardness, skull and beard like cotton,
its nose like a wedge; no sooner I saw the one
than the other changed and the first was forgotten …
This image nullifies any separation of the two strands of St. Lucia’s identity, fusing the white and the black bard into the same body, and portraying them as drawing on the same inspirations: “both of them had the look of men/whose skins are preserved in salt, whose accents were born/from guttural shoal, whose vision was wide as rain,//sweeping over the sand, clouding the hills in gauze” (281).
Interestingly, Walcott doesn’t present these levels of uniting St. Lucia’s African and European aspects in sequential order through Omeros. The hurricane passage in which the black and white gods celebrate together occurs in Book One, the parallels stretch through Books Two through Five, the juxtaposition of Christmas and Jonkonnu is in Book Six, and the conflation of Homer and Seven Seas begins the poem’s final book. This anomaly of placing the incrementally second-to-last level in creating a hybrid Caribbean identity in the first sequential position might mean that, in Walcott’s vision, this hybridity retains flexibility and mutability: he leaves leeway to accommodate different degrees and extents of combination at different times. This in turn implies that St. Lucian identity is truly the sum of its parts, not a purée of Africa and Europe that obliterates the uniqueness of each—a model hinted at by the narrator’s imaginary guide at the start of Book Seven alternating between Homer and Seven Seas rather than blurring their features together simultaneously.
The strategy of dialectic and triangulation in joining divergent forces into something else (reinforced prosodically by the tercet stanza used throughout) resonates down into Omeros’ sub-themes. The rivalry between Hector and Achille achieves resolution after Hector’s death when Helen returns to Achille and they prepare for the child Helen expects, which might be Hector’s (318). Hector, vicariously through his possible offspring, participates in Achille and Helen’s incipient family, and Achille displays the magnanimity of accepting this participation. The historical conflict between Britain and France for St. Lucia seems at first glance to have resolved completely in favor of Britain, which ultimately ruled the island for over a century and a half. Nonetheless, France left its mark in the French-based patois spoken by black St. Lucians that appears in dialogue throughout Omeros. This fact, then, sets up a new dialectic, with English the tongue of officialdom on one side and patois the speech of the masses on the other. They find their synthesis in the Gallicisms that characters carry over into their use of English, such as the frequent substitution of “it have” for “there is”—a direct translation of the French idiom “il y a.” In both these cases, each party expands its domain to include something of the other, and their intersection produces a new phenomenon that encompasses aspects of both.
From this maneuver of enlarging the self to include something outside itself, Walcott concludes that the key to enlarging and hybridizing identity is empathy. To begin at the personal level, Hector prays to the Virgin Mary just before his death “in endless remorse,//for her mercy at what he had done to Achille,/his brother” (225-226). He doesn’t live to ask Achille’s forgiveness, yet Achille forgives him of his own accord and pays tribute at Hector’s funeral:
Achille had carried an oar
to the church and propped it outside with the red tin.
Now his voice strengthened. He said, “Mate, this is your spear,”
and laid the oar slowly
And this was the prayer that Achille could not utter:
The spear that I give you, my friend, is only wood.
Vexation is past. I know how well you treat her.
You never know my admiration, when you stood
crossing the sun at the bow of the long canoe
with the plates of your chest like a shield; I would say
any enemy so was a compliment.
Their shared connection to and experience with the sea, strong enough to make Hector feel guilty for abandoning fishing (231) and for Achille to declare finally that the pain of Hector’s stealing Helen feels negligible next to his admiration for Hector, reminds them that they are kindred spirits.
Philoctete’s case involves both personal and social empathy. It’s easy to miss, when Philoctete is introduced early in the book, that he imposes the loneliness blamed on the stink of his wound on himself. We meet him the morning that Achille christens a new canoe, and Walcott relates,
Soon he would run,
hobbling, to the useless shade of an almond,
with locked teeth, then wave them off from the shame
of his smell, and once more they would leave him alone
under its leoparding light.
Philoctete assumes that his wound’s stench makes his company unbearable and thus withdraws from associating with most other people; nonetheless, no character who interacts with him manifests any reluctance or distaste. Consequently, Philoctete must earn his cure by reintegrating himself into the society that his wound has led him to spurn. On the personal side, he tries to reconcile Hector and Achille, telling them
… they had a common bond
between them: the sea. The sea that changed the cedars
into canoes, from the day they had hacked the trees
in the heights. He said, whatever a woman does,
that is her business, but men are bound by their work.
On the social side, he hands out and posts fliers for fellow fisherman Maljo’s independent, populist parliamentary campaign (105-106). Furthermore, Edward Baugh highlights that the empathy of Ma Kilman, whose shop provides Philoctete with his usual daily place of refuge, leads her to discover the plant that will cure his wound: “Rolling down the elastic bands to ease the discomfort of the stockings as she prays” in church before searching for the plant in the forest, “Ma Kilman is reminded of Philoctete’s discomfort. Her empathy is a sign that her redemptive quest is undertaken not for herself but for her people”—or for others generally, for an other. Baugh continues, “Significantly, therefore, the plant she seeks gives off a stench like that from Philoctete’s wound, but Ma Kilman must not flinch from it” (193). Philoctete’s engagement in the lives of others and in the life of his people, his coming out of his shell of personal shame and racial fatalism, returns to him karmically through Ma Kilman’s engagement in his own life.
The most important form of empathy in Omeros, of course, is empathy across the races. Achille attends and weeps at the funeral of Maud Plunkett:
Why should he be here, why should they have come at all
Could he, in that small
suit too tight at the shoulders, who shovelled the pens
in the rain at Plunkett’s, love him? Where was it from,
this charity of soul, more piercing than Helen’s
beauty? runnelling his face like the road to the farm?
Achille’s “charity of soul” probably comes from having himself lost the love of his life—though to another man, not to death. Through his experience of similar suffering, Achille obviates the racial difference between himself and the Major and puts himself in the Major’s place. Major Plunkett in turn takes his inspiration for writing his history of St. Lucia from Helen, although we will see that the project has an aftertaste of colonialism. Still, his wonder at Helen has given him new appreciation for the black islanders’ human dignity; “he began to speak to the workmen” on his pig farm “not as boys who worked with him,” and he makes friendly banter with the narrator as they stand in line at a bank (309, 269). He even visits Ma Kilman, who has a reputation as an “obeah-woman,” to try a séance with Maud’s soul. She tells him Maud is in heaven, “‘[i]f heaven is a green place.’/And her shut eyes watered while his own were open.//That moment bound him for good to another race” (307). Walcott points to personal, individual experience and relationships as the way into cultivating the empathy necessary to build his ideal compound Caribbean identity.
The reader might wonder, if Walcott the narrator claims equal investment in Achille’s discovery of his African origins and in Plunkett’s discovery of his European origins, how Omeros can devote more space to the African side of the equation. Baugh comments that Omeros is Walcott’s “deepest, most unqualified acknowledgment to date of the African presence in the Caribbean” (190), and as such a modification of his previous attitude. Earlier in his book, Baugh relates that, following from Walcott’s propounding of hybrid identity, “[i]t is not surprising then that Walcott should disagree with those who claim that Caribbean cultural and artistic ‘tradition is wholly [or, presumably, primarily] African’” and shaped by “‘the nostalgia of one race’” (brackets Baugh’s), and cites an early article by Walcott on the negritude movement of black Francophone writers arguing that it constituted an “unfortunate insistence on blackness and black exclusiveness. This insistence has helped entrench racial divisiveness …” (18, 16).
Why, then, the greater focus on Africa in Omeros? Paula Burnett offers the simple reason of St. Lucia’s overwhelmingly black population (3), an undeniably valid one. But the subplot of Philoctete’s wound indicates a deeper factor: time’s obliteration of black St. Lucians’ cultural memory of their African origin. The substitution of a Eurocentric education of St. Lucia’s black inhabitants for knowledge of their ancestral African culture, a major legacy of British imperialism, compounds the sense of loss and rootlessness caused by their geographical and temporal distance from that culture. Near the end of Book One, the ghost of Walcott’s father tells the Walcott narrator figure that his barber had known him for quoting from the works in the barber’s edition of The World’s Great Classics (71-72). Presumably, especially in Warwick Walcott’s time, the “world” referred to in this title is the Eurocentric one (Warwick’s ghost quotes The Merchant of Venice in the same monologue)—I doubt the series included songs or tales by West African griots. Walcott himself has testified that “because of this cultural exposure, it was easier to relate to the mythology of ancient Greece than to that of … the obscured traditions of Africa. In [Walcott’s preface to his play Dream on Monkey Mountain] ‘What the Twilight Says,’ he describes how difficult it was for his theater company to relate to the Yoruba divinities of Soyinka’s plays: ‘Ogun was an exotic for us, not a force’” (Burnett 102, brackets mine). Even the reputed obeah-woman Ma Kilman dismisses Seven Seas’ unintelligible songs as possibly “old African babble,” alien and irrelevant. Knowledge of their African heritage must be delivered to the book’s black characters through a pair of dei ex machina, Achille’s journey to Africa in his subconscious while passed out from heat stroke and Ma Kilman being led to the plant that cures Philoctete’s wound by a line of ants (127-157, 238-244). The story of creating a consciously hybrid identity for St. Lucia, then, must include the story of recovering the African portion of that identity.
Yet Omeros’ emphasis on Africa’s influence on the Caribbean does not evolve, or to Walcott devolve, into a nostalgic Afrocentrism. The Walcott narrator figure ridicules his late father’s Garveyite barber, “His paradise/is a phantom Africa. Elephants. Trumpets” (72). Achille’s Africa, although experienced only in his subconscious, is more real than the barber’s imaginary idyll stereotyping a place he knows little about because Achille incorporates what he learns there into his lived reality in St. Lucia. Burnett comments, “The important conclusion, for Walcott, is that Achille carries his Africa in him, through his genetic and cultural heritage; he does not have to incorporate its geographical reality into his life because it is naturalized into his Caribbeanness” (36). And he cannot revert for good to a pristine Africanness. Even while learning his ancestral traditions, he feels alienated from his tribe because he can neither reveal nor prevent the impending tragedy of their enslavement, and because he misses his life on St. Lucia (139-141, Hamner 77). Moreover, Ma Kilman discovers the healing plant not by going to Africa, but by Africa coming to her: it descends from a seed carried in the stomach of an African sea swift that veered off course over the Atlantic to St. Lucia (238-239). Thus, Walcott still aims for the pendulum of Caribbean identity to settle equidistantly between Europe and Africa, but because of its long bias toward the European side, in Omeros he must swing it vigorously toward Africa to compensate.
As tightly and intricately woven as Omeros’ thematic organization is, a few ragged threads stick out at its edges. A note of restoration sounds when, after oscillating between Achille and Hector, Helen tells Achille at Maud Plunkett’s funeral, “‘I coming home,’” and they prepare for the birth of Helen’s child, seemingly resolving the narrative’s major conflict (267). But Helen’s fickleness is ended only by the death of one of her lovers; there’s no telling when this willful latter-day Helen of Troy might stray again to some other man who strikes her fancy. Additionally, Helen fails to share Achille’s interest in their African roots. Initially she laughs at his Jonkonnu masquerade in drag (275, Hamner 145), and in response to Achille’s wish to give the baby Helen carries an African name, Ma Kilman reports, “‘Helen/don’t want no African child. He says he’ll leave it//till the day of the christening. That Helen must learn/where she from’” (318). These potential land mines in Achille and Helen’s reunion run at cross-purposes to Seven Seas’s declaration near the end of the book, “‘We shall all heal,’” threatening to imminently reopen Achille’s wound of lost love and mar the peace provided by his new connection to the legacy of Africa (319). Another thematic misstep happens when, as Philoctete is healed of his wound, Walcott proclaims, “The yoke of the wrong name lifted from his shoulders” (247). Granted, Philoctete’s healing through the African herb transplanted to St. Lucia represents re-accessing his heritage. But this line begs the question: what is his right name? The poem doesn’t tell us. Even Achille, who admits to his ancestor Afolabe that he doesn’t know what his European name means, keeps that name after he returns from his dream journey to Africa. He can give an African name to Helen’s child, a new life who, thanks to Achille, can grow up conscious of his or her origins, but Achille cannot change what he himself is and has been—neither he nor Philoctete can pretend that the transfer of Africanness from Old World to New has been or is seamless. Walcott at times gives the impression of being so taken by the music of his words that he forgets to ensure that their meanings interact with the same grace as their sounds.
In Nobody’s Nation, Paul Breslin quotes Trinidadian writer Victor Questel, “‘[T]he area that best reflects Walcott’s inconsistency is his treatment of history’” (3). Walcott evinces an antagonism toward history in essays and public utterances from decades prior to Omeros. Paula Burnett cites his essay from the 1970s, “The Muse of History”: “‘The truly tough aesthetic of the New World neither explains nor forgives history. It refuses to recognize it as a creative or culpable force’”; Baugh refers to Walcott’s “intendedly revolutionary position: ‘In the Caribbean history is irrelevant, not because it is not being created, or because it was sordid; but because it has never mattered’” (64-65; 10). Such claims sound preposterous—as Achille’s imaginary voyage to Africa and Major Plunkett’s research illustrate and as Burnett herself observes, history is the key to understanding the hybrid West Indian identity Walcott has always valorized (65). Be that as it may, Baugh’s quote continues, “‘What has mattered is the loss of history, the amnesia of the races’” (10), although only one of the Caribbean’s races has lost its history. Walcott celebrates the amnesia of the Caribbean’s separation from history in much of his oeuvre as positive and liberating, allowing one to create oneself anew. In Omeros, however, Walcott points up the cost of this amnesia in the figure of Philoctete, who cannot re-create himself because his racial amnesia prevents him from completely knowing who he is. His amnesia is a “psychic scar of historical violence,” Breslin comments, and “Philoctete’s cure … require[s] Ma Kilman’s retrieval of the past” (249; 253). Breslin suggests that the lesson of Philoctete’s story is that “[o]ne remembers so that the bitterness of the past, no longer evaded, loses its power to encumber the present” (249), but the past’s bitterness is precisely what Philoctete cannot evade in his historical amnesia; he (or Ma Kilman for him) must go behind this bitterness to discover the wholeness it has blocked out. In Omeros, therefore, Walcott articulates a more mature understanding of history’s importance to the West Indies and the consequences of its lack, an understanding found in places but less commonly in his earlier work (Breslin 6).
Burnett notes that Renu Juneja sees Walcott’s approaches to history forming a paradox, “‘the need to be free of its burden and the need to reclaim it’” (65). Perhaps its paradox resolves in the idea that what has been done to the Caribbean’s people should be forgotten, while what the Caribbean’s people have done, both there and in their places of origin, should be reclaimed. Baugh tries to resolve it by arguing, “It is not history (what happened) with which Walcott quarrels, but rather certain ways in which men have tended to use and abuse history” (12). This might be—but if so, Walcott commits uncharacteristic verbal imprecision by denoting what he opposes with the blanket term “history.”
Nonetheless, Walcott does oppose the misuse of history in Omeros, particularly as part of imperialism. Omeros reacts to a common attitude among the imperial powers about colonized territories and their inhabitants that they have “no history, and that history does not become significant there until the European comes on the scene”; for example, several Walcott scholars, and Walcott himself in his Nobel speech, cite the late 19th Century British historian James Anthony Froude’s remark that there are “no people” in the Caribbean “in the true sense of the word” (James 8, Baugh 9). Such an attitude, locating value solely in the metropolitan center of empire, consigns colonies to marginality and a resulting sense of isolation. Plunkett reflects this view when he yearns, after World War II, to retire to a corner of the British Empire “where what they called history could not happen” (28). In context, the Major compliments his future home for providing a haven of calm where he could recuperate from witnessing the horror he survived. His comment nonetheless bespeaks a Eurocentric conception of history in which any significant event must feature the imperial centers of power in leading roles (however, Plunkett’s qualification “what they called” might signal a criticism of this conception). Thus, while Britain replaces black St. Lucians’ history and culture with its own, it implicitly denies them bona fide participation in that history and culture. The ghost of Walcott’s father, himself a poet but unpublished, confides that he “never felt part//of that foreign machinery known as Literature” (68)—geographically and politically distanced from the source of the English literary tradition he works in, Warwick Walcott feels alienated from it and that it is alien to him, even though he was educated in it and spoke its language his entire life. He senses that, as a colonial, true participation in English literature is off-limits to him, whatever his feelings and activity to the contrary.
Major Plunkett’s project of writing a history of St. Lucia, for all his ostensibly altruistic motives, also proceeds from the imperialist view of colonies and their history. An emigrant from the mother country, he assumes that the former colony’s history is his to give, and he centers its historical significance on the Battle of the Saints, an episode in the struggle between two European imperial powers (Baugh 190; Breslin 255). Furthermore, he seeks to enhance this significance by drawing parallels between the battle and one of European culture’s founding documents, the Iliad, telling Maud,
“Look, love, for instance,
near sunset, on April 12, hear this, the Ville de Paris
struck her colours to Rodney. Surrendered. Is this chance
or an echo? Paris gives the golden apple, a war is
fought for an island called Helen?”—clapping conclusive hands.
His genuine attachment to the island fails to prevent him from defining it by what has happened to it, not by what it has done, or from seeking to validate its history by grafting it onto a European cultural referent.
In opposition to this perspective, the book includes a section not narrated through Plunkett’s point of view in which a group of slaves, including Achille’s ancestor Afolabe, builds a fort for the British on St. Lucia before the battle, revealing that St. Lucians themselves underpinned Britain’s effort in its clash with its French nemesis (Burnett 74). Additionally, frequent references to the island’s aboriginal Arawaks indicate it has a vast pre-Columbian history lost to genocide. Walcott satirizes the notion of forces outside St. Lucia bestowing value onto it through the anecdote of a bottle covered in fool’s gold retrieved from the sea that sits in a nearby museum; local legend purports it to have come from the Ville de Paris, the French flagship in the Battle of the Saints (43). The bottle’s association with the battle, like the island’s, invests it with an aura of importance, but this aura in fact is an illusion, like the bottle’s pyrite—worthless, and extraneous to the thing itself. Plunkett’s attachment to the island ultimately wins out, though, as Plunkett abandons his research and learns to see St. Lucia and its people as valuable in their own right. This deeper level of respect for his adopted country marks his inner naturalization from English expatriate to full-fledged St. Lucian.
Ingeniously, Walcott’s vision of the Caribbean’s hybrid identity counters the region’s marginalization to and isolation from European history and culture by making it the site of the synthesis of the European-African dialectic, giving birth to a new culture bred from the Caribbean’s own unique situation and, as Burnett suggests, possibly a new phase of history. The collapse of imperialism and the world’s growing political, economic, and technological interconnectedness and their resulting erosion (though far from complete) of notions of national, ethnic, or racial exclusivism might foster a worldwide sense of hybrid culture and identity like that pioneered by the Caribbean: “It is not romance to suggest that the particular reality of Caribbean culture may provide a template for what is now a global phenomenon” (Burnett 315).
A less resolvable oddity about Walcott’s treatment of history than his paradoxical attitude toward it is a few factual errors he makes about it. The pair of lines “A snow-headed Negro froze in the Pyrenees,/an ape behind bars, to Napoleon’s orders” seems to allude to Toussaint L’Ouverture, captured during France’s vain campaign to reconquer Haiti and sent to spend the rest of his life in a French prison (115). But L’Ouverture’s prison was in the Jura Mountains, on the other side of France from the Pyrenees (“Toussaint Louverture,” “Fort de Joux”). In the sections about the pro-Native American activist Catherine Weldon (apparently also known as Caroline Weldon), who became Sitting Bull’s English-language secretary not long before the Sioux leader was killed, Walcott writes that Weldon lived in Boston before and after heading to the West—in fact, her Eastern home was Brooklyn (“Caroline Weldon”). Myth often transforms facts and details, and writers transform objective facts for thematic consistency, plausibility, or any number of reasons. But these variations from fact by Walcott serve no discernible purpose. Omeros’ mythopoeia lies in creating a heightened St. Lucia, a model of it and its life that takes on a life of its own. Underneath its artistry, however, the case it makes for this life and for St. Lucia’s hybrid identity is an argument attempting to win the reader over to its vision. Flubbing these historical facts can seriously damage the ethos Walcott brings to this rhetorical effort.
Of course, Omeros employs traditional mythology heavily as well. As in the Iliad, a Hector and an Achilles pit themselves against each other in a conflict caused by a woman named Helen, and the parallel between Omeros’ Philoctete and the Philoctetes of Homer and Sophocles has already been mentioned. Achille’s travel to Africa is a heroic journey like those of Odysseus and Aeneas, and Achille’s unsuccessful search for a new home less ravaged by commercial fishing fleets echoes Aeneas’ quest to found Rome. Moreover, the episode of Walcott meeting the ghost of his father resembles Anchises giving Aeneas his mission (Hamner 56). His trip with Homer/Seven Seas to the volcanic sulfur pit Soufrière reflects the descent into the underworld in the Odyssey and the Aeneid.
But Walcott wisely varies from his mythic models, preventing Omeros from becoming merely a rehash of classical sources. Paul Breslin observes that whereas Homer characterizes Hector as solid and reliable to his polis and family versus Achilles who first sulks by himself away from combat, then wreaks his fury upon Hector and his corpse in battle, Hector in Omeros forsakes his lifelong trade of fishing to tear across the island in his taxi van to rack up fares while Achille remains true to his calling despite competition from voracious commercial fisheries, bemoaning their economic threat to St. Lucia’s simple, traditional life. Further, “characters begin to play more than one mythical role at once…. Hector and Achille in effect double as Paris and Menelaus, Helen’s lovers” (250). If Walcott’s Hector stands in for Trojan Paris, he is a passive version, for he doesn’t abduct Helen—she chooses him (Hamner 47). Achille has no second-banana Patroclus figure to be killed off, so Hector dies not by Achille’s hand but by his own reckless speeding, the “breaker of horses” ironically unable to control his vehicle (Burnett 156). Walcott turns to Virgil rather than Homer for Achille’s search for a new home toward the book’s end, and unlike Aeneas he doesn’t find one. Walcott’s variations on mythology make his characters and their situations more real and give them independent vitality; they engage the reader more than if they mechanically enacted the mythological script. They also fit the theme of adapting cultural heritage to new circumstances, as with Jonkonnu.
Walcott might have also intended his deviations from mythology to undercut mythology itself. Breslin writes,
In a remarkable impromptu lecture, transcribed for South Atlantic Quarterly, Walcott claimed that “the last third” of Omeros “is a total refutation of the efforts made by two characters.” The first is the English expatriate Dennis Plunkett’s attempt to ennoble the maid, Helen, who has worked for him by comparing her to Helen of Troy; this obsession leads him to pursue every possible verbal coincidence linking St. Lucia to the Homeric narrative. But “the second effort is made by the writer, or narrator (presumably me, if you like), who composes a long poem in which he compares the island woman to Helen of Troy. The answer to both the historian [Plunkett] and the poet/narrator … is that the woman doesn’t need it.” (242, brackets Breslin’s)
The narrator comes to feel that imposing the mythic models on the characters and their situations betrays the very vital authenticity that allows us to accept their parallels with these models. He wants to rely on their inherent nobility and dignity to portray them as heroic: “… Walcott begins with a poetic conceit and nearly allows it to become literal … ‘when would I not hear the Trojan War/In two fisherman cursing in Ma Kilman’s shop?/When would my head shake off its echoes…?’ He would instead ‘see Helen as the sun saw her, with no Homeric shadow’” (Breslin 261). Walcott’s rejection of mythology resembles his rejection of history (or its misuse) in that it relates to his earlier oeuvre’s “Adamic” ideal of liberation from cultural baggage, allowing one to make one’s own meaning out of his or her world (248).
Yet Breslin also points out that Omeros devotes a great amount of space to creating and elaborating the links to mythology that it eventually rejects (243). In addition, Achille’s latter-day Aeneid, plus the apparition of Homer identified with Seven Seas and his excursion with the narrator to the Hades of Soufrière, occur after the narrator’s renunciation of mythic models quoted by Breslin. Homer/Seven Seas, viewing the masts of the phantom French fleet from the Battle of the Saints, even exclaims, “‘This is like Troy/all over. This forest gathering for a face!’”—explicitly linking St. Lucian Helen with Helen of Troy and the fight for the island with the Trojan War once more (288, Hamner 150). Walcott proves unable to let go of the mythological conceits that he complains obstruct a true rendering of St. Lucia.
Breslin offers a possible explanation for Walcott’s ambivalence toward myth in Omeros: “My guess is that the self-critique emerged in the course of composition, and that Walcott could not (or would not) integrate the portions he had already completed into his belated insight” (272). Perhaps. It’s also possible that Walcott believes ethically that he should dispense with myth and depict St. Lucian life more directly, but aesthetically remains beholden to its pull on his imagination. Either of these latter two cases imputes to Walcott a rather muddled sense of his vision for the book. Or reverting to mythic comparisons after his professed rejection of them might be meant to undercut that very wish to undercut mythology, to show that it’s easier said than done—after all, the narrator can’t see Helen as the sun sees her, because the sun doesn’t see her. If so, Walcott doesn’t sufficiently point the reader in this direction to prevent bewilderment at Walcott’s re-reversal. If not, his rejection of myth seems a misguided and altogether unnecessary unease with much poetry’s modus operandi, and humanity’s habit, of finding things’ meanings beyond those things themselves.
For all the importance of theme in Omeros, it remains a narrative poem. Several critics describe Omeros’ narrative structure as non-linear, but most of the book does move forward in time. Book One sets the scene, introduces most of the major characters, and sets the main plots in motion. Book Two develops them further. Book Three consists of Achille’s interlude in Africa, Books Four and Five of the narrator’s travels in America and Europe, respectively. Book Six sees the narrator and the action return to St. Lucia for the subdued climaxes of Hector’s and Maud Plunkett’s deaths, Philoctete’s cure, and Helen’s return to Achille. Book Seven contains the dénouement, the book both taking its leave of St. Lucia in the narrator’s spontaneous valedictory ode uttered under the tutelage of Homer/Seven Seas and looking ahead to the future in Helen’s unborn child and strengthened relationships among the characters—“‘Plunkett promise me a pig next Christmas,’” Ma Kilman tells Seven Seas (319). And the events move forward quite successfully: as I finished one section, I constantly found myself peeking ahead at the next section to see what happens. In terms of content, Walcott’s masterful characterization, playwright’s sense of dramatic development, and creation of simultaneous, parallel, and sometimes intersecting plots impel the reader forward. As for form, Baugh comments, “The long line carries the narrative forward in an easy, brisk flow, threaded and propelled by the self-renewing, endlessly varied, and largely unobtrusive, irregular rhyme. Brad Leithauser … suggests, ‘One might go so far as to call [the poem] rhyme-driven’” (187-188, brackets Baugh’s). More than the long line, which carries us only across the page and in other contexts could convey a sluggish inertia, the frequent enjambment pushes the narrative onward, drawing the reader’s eyes down the page line after line.
The narrative’s most notable variation from linear progression is its beginning after all the other events in the poem have happened. Philoctete guides a group of tourists in the grove where he and fellow fishermen once cut down trees for new canoes:
For some extra silver, under a sea-almond,
he shows them a scar made by a rusted anchor,
rolling one trouser leg up with the rising moan
of a conch. It has puckered like the corolla
of a sea-urchin. He does not explain its cure.
“It have some things”—he smiles—“worth more than a dollar.”
The next section places Achille in the grove just after the tree-cutting; when we meet Philoctete next a few pages later, his wound is not healed, and the rest of the narrative proceeds forward toward where the book begins. Nonetheless, Omeros feels as though it begins in medias res like the ancient epics it references and as though it moves forward from that beginning (Hamner 36). Due to the second section having the same setting as the first, the first section’s uniformity of tone with all that follows, and Philoctete’s captivating description, we easily forget that Philoctete recounts a past event. This uniformity of tone between portrayals of Philoctete in his healed and unhealed states has a thematic implication: his cure has always been within reach. Paul Breslin remarks about the curative plant, “The sea-swift, in bringing the flower’s seed across the Atlantic, ‘aimed to carry the cure that precedes every wound.…’ If the cure precedes the wound, then it is always latently available once the wound has been given” (269, ellipses mine). Although it symbolizes a reintegration with Philoctete’s African heritage, the plant essentially catalyzes a transformation of attitude from rootlessness and victimization to rootedness and agency that Philoctete was capable of all along—his real cure is internal. If Philoctete had wanted the cure as much as Ma Kilman had wanted to cure him, if he had striven to find the connection to Africa latent in features of St. Lucian culture like his annual Jonkonnu dance as she strives to recall a cure from the herbal pharmacopeia passed down from her ancestors, he might have been led to the healing plant before her. Unfortunately, he was too steeped in his despair to undertake this seeking for rootedness and remained unaware of the available cure. His detraumatized present had always waited within his suffering past to emerge, and therefore Walcott exhibits no differences in his tonal approach to Philoctete’s two phases.
The real locus of the lateral narrative movement many critics attribute to Omeros is at the chapter level. Each chapter consists of three sections that often move around an event or series of events like a triptych of panels, as Walcott himself once suggested (Baugh 187). The book’s first chapter, as mentioned before, begins with a section in which Philoctete narrates how he and the fishermen carved trees into canoes, continues with a section about Achille from the same event up to the canoes’ dedication, and ends with Achille heading to sea in his new canoe for the first time (3-9). Such panning of the narrative camera among various characters fits the poem’s theme of inclusiveness, linking the poem’s personalities around the events that affect them.
Omeros also occasionally employs the flashback, another trademark device of the epic, as when narrating the argument that led to Achille’s and Helen’s separation and the first time Achille saw her with Hector (37-41). The most interesting and important flashback occurs in Book Six, involving Hector’s death. The accident that kills him is narrated in the first section of Chapter XLV, and the poem tells us that he “thought of Plunkett’s warning” as he swerves from the road to avoid a stray piglet, alluding to a prior event that hasn’t been narrated yet (225, Hamner 130). Not until Chapter LI does the poem reveal the warning’s import. As Dennis and Maud Plunkett enjoy an early morning drive, Hector nearly crashes into them with his transport van. The Major chases him down as he stops to pick up passengers, and after Hector apologizes, “steered the conversation to Helen/cunningly and asked if she was happy….//He shook Hector’s hand again, but with a warning/about his new responsibility”—presumably his impending fatherhood (257). Placing Hector’s death near the beginning of the book’s return to St. Lucia signifies that his recklessness makes his death a foregone conclusion. Hector cannot control his behavior in accordance with his status as a future provider to his unborn child, and cannot take Plunkett’s caution to heart until it is too late. Hence, it would make no sense to relate the details of the Major’s warning in the section on Hector’s death, or before: it is, in every sense of the phrase, of no consequence to him.
Walcott’s treatment of narrative in Omeros has its flaws, though—the largest being Books Four and Five’s detour with the narrator’s travels through America and Europe. Even Robert Hamner, who does his best to justify these segments, admits, “this is probably the most precarious experiment in the poem’s overall narrative structure…. David Mason goes so far as to call them ‘a narrative red herring’” (92). In Book Four, the divorce that leads the narrator to relocate to Boston parallels Achille’s estrangement from Helen but casts inordinate attention on a character whose function through most of the poem is to observe rather than be observed. No reason offers itself for the reader to care about the heartache of a figure from the narrative’s shadows over losing a wife the poem never presents. Moreover, although his residence away from St. Lucia works with the theme of displacement also embodied in enslavement and in the Plunketts’ expatriation, it initiates a diversion of the action away from St. Lucia for two of the seven books of a poem otherwise serving as an encomium to it and as a blueprint for defining a new identity for it and the Caribbean.
Hamner claims that this gigantic tangent “is an essential facet of his [the narrator’s] multivalent odyssey. By transporting his Afro-Caribbean experience northward, he is able to confront powerful geographic and historical influences at the metropolitan source” (88, brackets mine), but the narrator does nothing of the kind. His tour through the South yields little more insight about slavery than could be gathered from the abandoned sugar plantation where Philoctete grows his yams, if Walcott had bothered to use it for this purpose. Walcott presages his exploration of the massacre of the Sioux in the wake of the Ghost Dance movement with several mentions of St. Lucia’s first inhabitants, the annihilated Arawaks, and especially deftly with a scene near the end of Book Three in which Achille pretends to shoot Native Americans with his oar for a rifle as he listens to Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Buffalo Soldiers” (161-162). Ultimately, though, the Sioux have little bearing on St. Lucia or the Arawaks: however butchered and relegated to desolate reservations the Sioux have been, they survive as a people and as a presence in the north-central United States, while nothing whatever remains of the Arawaks. For this reason, the tragedy of the slaughter of indigenous peoples would be more powerfully considered solely through the haunting absence of the Arawaks, whose memory the poem can only evoke through the iguana they named the island for and the pomme-Arac fruit that bears their shortened name. In Book Five, the narrator travels to Ireland, whose friction between Catholic and Protestant resembles St. Lucia’s between white and black; Portugal, originator of the trans-Atlantic slave trade; and Britain, St. Lucia’s erstwhile colonizer. Most of the topics the narrator dwells on in these places—the Irish conflict’s intractability, the privilege of great empires to define history, and the decline of Portugal and Britain from this power—he didn’t need to travel there to learn, and we certainly don’t need to follow him.
In its one original theme, Book Five posits that a great empire
… punctually pardoned itself
in the absolution of fountains and statues,
in writhing, astonishing tritons; their cold noise
brimming the basin’s rim, repeating that power
and art were the same, from Caesar’s eaten nose
to spires at sunset in the swift’s half-hour.
Yes, producing great art often distinguishes a major world power as much as dominating other countries and peoples. But empires, especially empires of the past, don’t produce art to exonerate themselves from the crime of imperialism, because they don’t feel it is a crime. While Dickens’s novels might lead us to judge Victorian Britain more favorably for producing such literary masterpieces than, say, the extermination of the Tasmanian aborigines would, this was hardly even an unconscious motive for Dickens’s writing them; the book’s meandering into Europe thus culminates in a gross emotional fallacy. In sum, the middle of Omeros is a tremendous case of a story getting away from itself.
Burnett’s Derek Walcott: Politics and Poetics expresses a rationale for Books Four and Five that aligns with Omeros’ theme of inclusiveness:
… he identifies with the oppressed everywhere, displaying the solidarity that Edward Said identifies: “Every subjugated community in Europe, Australia, Africa, Asia, and the Americas has played the sorely tried and oppressed Caliban to some outside master like Prospero…. It is best when Caliban sees his own history as an aspect of all subjugated men and women, and comprehends the complex truth of his own social and historical situation.” (71)
Such expansiveness enhances the narrative’s structure and interest when the added content about other groups relates strongly to the main subject and expands or extends its significance. However, throwing in material with as strained or tenuous connection to the main subject as that in Books Four and Five only dilates the scope of the narrative and thereby dilutes its focus. Walcott indulges a predilection for shorter tangents as well. Two passages near the book’s end, the Soufrière underworld episode and Achille’s search for a new home, feel tacked on, as though Walcott realizes he still needs to pack in a few more mythical allusions before finishing. The narrator already castigates the politicians he places in the crater’s Malebolge for pandering to foreign developers through Maljo’s election campaign and through Maud Plunkett’s reflection,
One day the Mafia
will spin these islands round like roulette. What use is
Dennis’s devotion when their own ministers
cash in on casinos with their old excuses
of more jobs?
Before one of the poets condemned to Soufrière for romanticizing St. Lucia’s poverty drags the narrator into the crater with them, the narrator already upbraids himself for the same offense in the “Why not see Helen//as the sun saw her” section, as well as in his taxi ride from the airport on returning to St. Lucia when he thinks
Didn’t I want the poor
to stay in the same light so that I could transfix
them in amber, the afterglow of an empire,
preferring a shed of palm-thatch with tilted sticks
to that blue bus-stop?...
Why hallow that pretence
of preserving what they left, the hypocrisy
of loving them from hotels, a biscuit-tin fence
smothered in love-vines, scenes to which I was attached
as blindly as Plunkett with his remorseful research?
In Achille’s Caribbean Aeneid, Walcott’s extension of the theme of human conflict and violence into environmental depredation works (“… man was an endangered//species now, a spectre, just like the Aruac/or the egret …/… once men were satisfied//with destroying men they would move on to Nature”) but gives short shrift to a subject that could fuel a book in itself; it would have been better to keep the ecological door shut than to open it only enough to barely see anything worth seeing (300). Considering Achille’s homesickness during his dream sojourn to Africa, moreover, the reader can easily predict that “he found no cove he liked as much as his own/village, whatever the future brought, no inlet/spoke to him quietly, no bay parted its mouth//like Helen under him …” (301). Omeros’ at best redundant, at worst irrelevant narrative digressions speak to an inability for Walcott to exclude from the poem what he wants if it’s what the poem doesn’t want—in creative writing workshop jargon, to “kill his babies.”
A work of art, especially of literature, serves as an ideal vehicle for such the project of a synthetic myth like the one Derek Walcott creates in Omeros, the composition process incorporating the mythopoeic process into itself. One would expect such a Muse-mothered myth to partake of art’s consistency and harmony. The pre-existing mythology, the history, and the geography it draws upon cannot simply coalesce around a core like protons fired at an atom; they must be molded into a new entity with contours determined by its own meaning. For the most part, Omeros and its St. Lucian myth succeed, unifying and shaping history, mythology, and its original narrative with its ideal of a hybrid Caribbean identity. In places, nonetheless, Omeros feels as though Walcott has allowed the poem to accrete haphazardly around his themes and meanings, and some of its faults—the thematic and myth-related ones in particular—threaten its viability as a model of the St. Lucian experience. The poem’s contradicting or second-guessing itself about the restorative effect of the recovery of African heritage and of love, and about the value of the poem’s mythological rubric, raises doubts about the artistic soundness of Walcott’s vision and the validity of its ultimate import.
Despite the length at which this essay dwells on them, I find myself caring less on another level about these imperfections than I do with other volumes of poetry similarly flawed. Omeros draws not only on mythology’s fantasy for its vision of St. Lucia but also on the empirical facts of history (most of which it gets right) and landscape. As well as a synthetic myth, Omeros is a powerful, sprawling artistic fact, as much a fact as the landscape it describes or the history it examines. The interrelation among Omeros’ parts invites one to consider it as a totalizing literary mandala of sorts; when viewing facts, however, God is in the details, and one can appreciate each of the small facts comprising the larger fact in turn, on its own terms. The undesirable aspects of Omeros cannot be changed or removed any more than the undesirable features of a landscape or undesirable events or people from history. They are as much a part of the fact before us as its excellences—a fact that has made the world richer for being in it—and rather than detracting from or neutralizing its excellences, seem to somehow exist in a domain parallel to but separate from them, thus not counteracting them. This sense is, perhaps, this book full of paradoxes’ ultimate paradox.
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© 2018 Robert Levine