Reviewing Derek Walcott’s Omeros

                                        I said, “Omeros,”

and O was the conch-shell’s invocation, mer was
both mother and sea in our Antillean patois,
os, a grey bone, and the white surf as it crashes

and spreads its sibilant collar on a lace shore.
Omeros was the crunch of dry leaves, and the washes
that echoed from a cave-mouth when the tide has ebbed.

(Omeros bk. 1 ch. 2 sec. 3)

Derek Walcott’s masterful Omeros is a palimpsest. As an epic poem, it is deeply indebted to Homer; as a portrait of St Lucia, it is bound to the daily rhythm of island life. It is this tension between rootedness in the Caribbean and participation in the “global republic” of English (to borrow from Paula Burnett) that Walcott explores in his imagination of a postcolonial world. Reading Omeros means inhabiting the contradictions inherent in the postcolonial condition. Walcott’s poetic work is an extraordinarily successful exploration of modern life, all accomplished in poignant and achingly beautiful lyric verse.

The poem is structured as an odyssey, shifting from the present-day Caribbean to modern-day Europe and seventeenth-century Africa before returning to Walcott’s home island. The narrative is divided into seven books that provide a structure for the 64 chapters, each of which comprises a handful of sections. Yet the plot, such as it is, can be roughly split in three. In the first part, Achille and Hector (two fishermen) are competing for the affections of Helen against the backdrop of modernizing St Lucia. The second part of Omeros shifts to a broader view of the world by considering Philoctete and Ma Kilman. Their connections with Africa are visceral, spiritual, and deeply allegorical; in the case of Philoctete’s wound, the legacy of slavery quite literally bleeds into the present. The narrator dwells both on the horrors of the Middle Passage and the contradictions of the contemporary metropole before returning to the St Lucian town of Gros-Ilet in the concluding section. To end, the narrator turns away from history to instead depict the tourists who flood St Lucia’s beaches today: “barefoot Americans strolling into the banks— / there was a plague of them now, worse than the insects / who, at least, were natives” (1.10.3). In this third and final section, Hector dies driving these same tourists from the airport to a hotel, while Achille remains afloat as a fisherman.

Throughout Omeros, the St Lucian protagonists – Philoctete and Helen, Hector and Achille – are drawn against the background of their heroic counterparts. Walcott’s concern with mythology (and mythologizing) reverberates throughout the book, pulsing under the ebbs and flows of plot and language. Walcott’s major concerns are with memory, history, and the imbrications of past and present. Hence his consideration of the many influences on St Lucia: indigenous beginnings, English and French colonialism, and African slavery all contributed to the modern creole. Indeed, the island was so hotly contested that Frederick Treves in 1910 called it “the Helen of the West Indies.” The narrator’s affliction, as astutely noted by Nicholas Everett, “is to see St Lucian life through the lens of Homeric mythology.” Yet Omeros is more than a national epic; at its heart are universal questions of how we negotiate legacy. Towards the end of his poem, Walcott addresses these themes forthrightly:

                          When would the sails drop

from my eyes, when would I not hear the Trojan War
in two fishermen cursing in Ma Kilman’s shop?
When would my head shake off its echoes like a horse

shaking off a wreath of flies? When would it stop,
the echo in the throat, insisting, “Omeros”;
when would I enter that light beyond metaphor?

(Omeros bk. 6 ch. 54 sec. 3)

The search for “light beyond metaphor” drives all elements of Walcott’s work. His postmodern tendencies are apparent in his negotiation of narration, form, and temporality. Walcott does not hesitate to insert himself into the narrative. Indeed, the second half of the work features the poet’s encounters with his father’s ghost and with Homer himself. Partly because of this, Walcott’s concern with characterization is secondary; details of history and context predominate. Walcott thus pushes against the conventions of genre. Omeros has no Ulysses, no Achilles; there is no tragic hero whose journey shapes the work. Similarly, Walcott is untroubled by strict demands of form. He borrows loosely from Shakespearian blank verse, Homeric hexameter, and Dantean terza rima – though Walcott maintains a three-line stanza throughout the work. Throughout his work, Walcott is driven by his keen sense of music in his employment of literary devices including personification, alliteration and assonance, and even pararhyme at times. His concerns with history and legacy are necessarily complicated by considerations of metaphor. Such a reading, focused on the language of Omeros, highlights Walcott’s deconstructionist sensibilities. Walcott, it seems, would agree with Spivak and Derrida that language is paramount to how we construct our world.

For Omar Khalifa, an Arab poet, it is at this fundamental level that the postcolonial enters Walcott’s work. In his reading of Omeros, “Saint Lucia wishes it had remained a bare location excluded from the lexicon of geographic metaphors as the most important, most beautiful and most magnificent island, because this only resulted in colonial aspirations.” The irony that underlies Walcott’s work is of course that he expresses his worries about metaphor using the tool of metaphor. His resistance to mythology is articulated through its vocabulary. His weariness with the legacy of Western literature is expressed through its most distinctive form, the epic poem. At the most basic level, Walcott writes about the vagaries of colonialism and créolité in the colonial language, English. But these choices Walcott makes reflect precisely the characteristics of postcolonialism. Omeros is a masterpiece because it inhabits contradictions and helps us imagine a different future while relishing its own language and form.

Let me know what you think!