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 Table Mountain?
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