A sparrow is a domestic alien:
Its thoughts are not betrayed in its mien.
The place of its inscrutable soul
Is not in the chirrups I hear;
Nor in the birds feeding around the bowl
That flock together but scatter when I near;
Nor in the incessant chatter of these omnivores
That makes observing them, to me, something of a chore.
And yet, in communing, we find common
Sense in what we might dismiss as solemn.
Breaking bread, sharing food: a sacral act
That smacks of incense and insincerity.
Yet sitting at a table, exercising common tact,
Is how we make a world from commensality.
With thanks to Don McKay’s “Adagio for a Fallen Sparrow.”
Three sources: PRONK, Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, and Derek Walcott’s The Schooner Flight.
I stand on the wharf.
A lascar cries from agil
To his serang: “bas!”
Onboard, a sahib’s
Call is glossed by a Malay
Who runs to fetch wine
For patroon’s kajuit.
The bay babbles, but so does town.
I face her alleys
To hear joyous drums
Some free black has brought from her
House to the harbor.
Above the rhythm —
Then — violins commandeer
A tune from the waves.
Or is it from the
Geese honking, circling over
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. Continue reading