Friday, May 13, 2011

Omeros by Derek Walcott

Walcott’s most ambitious book-length poem, Omeros, was published in 1990. Shortly thereafter in 1992, he won the Nobel Prize. “Omeros” which is a corruption of “Homer” refers to a tradition of thinking of the West Indies as a potential site for a new civilization which would aspire to the heights of ancient Greece. The primary setting for Omeros is Walcott’s native St. Lucia, which had earned the epithet, “Helen of the West” in the midst of England and France’s colonial rivalry over the island.

Omeros is divided into seven books and sixty-two chapters, a kind of dual scheme. Each of the chapters are further divided into sub-sections. Formally, the poem is a hybrid form: it is in loose hexameter much like Homer’s, but with occasional pentameter and tetrameter lines which suggest a more folk-like character. The stanzas are mostly tercets reminiscent of Dante’s Divine Comedy without, however, the strict rhyme of terza rima.

Book 1: This initial book focuses primarily on introducing the major characters on the island of St. Lucia. In the opening scene, Philoctete is hewing trees to make canoes and displaying his work for tourists. We are introduced to Seven Seas the blind man, who doubles as one of the “Omeros” figures throughout the work. Ma Kilman owns the oldest bar in town, and her belief systems are a mix of Obeah African origins and Catholic influences. Major Plunkett and his wife Maud, originally from Ireland, have committed themselves to living abroad, though Major Plunkett adamantly tries to super-impose a Westernized history of St. Lucia, meticulously and obsessively drawing correspondences between St. Lucia and Homeric myth. In particular, Plunkett is obsessed with the pretty native woman, Helen, who for a time was the Plunkett’s maid. Achille is Helen’s lover but he is involved in a rivalry with Hector for her love. Helen is fairly proud of her beauty, and Maud resents her presence and influence on her husband. A cyclone’s destruction is described in great detail in this book, and the difficulty of maintaining order over the landscape greatly bothers Plunkett, whose primary occupation is that of a pig farmer. Finally, the poetic “I” (who is Walcott) intrudes into the first book as a kind of character living alongside the rest of the characters. He is told in this first book by his father in a kind of dream-like vision (Warwick Walcott died when Derek was a one year old) to find a way to give voice to the people of the island.

Book 2: This second book breaks chronological time and space through a flashback to Plunkett’s ancestor, a midshipman during the battle between France and Britain in 1782 over St. Lucia. The French are defeated, though the young midshipman perishes. One of the slaves which the English take is Afalobe, whom they rename Achilles. Back in the present time, there is an election—Philoctete and Hector join Maljo’s “United Love Party,” but they are defeated. The election scene demonstrates a failure of self-government after the colonial encounter, and how elections don’t have much of an impact on the everyday lives of the citizens. Major Plunkett, meanwhile, struggles with his fascination for Helen in a vivid scene where he can’t bring himself to scold her when she takes one of Maud’s bracelets. Helen moves in with Hector, preferring him to Achille. In order to make more money, Hector gives up fishing for the more lucrative (but far more oppressive and constrained) work of driving a passenger van. Helen announces that she is pregnant, though she is unsure whos’ baby it is. She boldly asks Maud to borrow money. At the close of the book, Achille is out on his fishing boat, In God We Troust, and begins to fall into a sort of hallucinatory vision of the Middle Passage. He wonders, for the first time, about his own identity.

Book 3: This shorter book describes how Achille goes back in time to the slave trade and back to his ancestral African village during a kind of dream or hallucination. He meets his ancestor Afolabe and learns about his origins--the different rituals and customs which Achille then realizes to be in the shadows of St. Lucian rituals and customs in his present-day life. Achille also witnesses the brutal scene of his ancestor’s enslavement through a raid. Afolabe enslaved becomes renamed as Achilles, a name which he accepts because, beaten down, it is simply easier to do so. When Achille makes him temporal and spatial return, he evinces a new interest in dispossessed peoples, including the Native Americans. His perspective has become more global.

Book 4: As if matching Achille’s now expanded perspectives, Book 4 opens up new geographic and temporal spaces. The first part includes scenes of Walcott’s own divorce while in New England, the Wounded Knee massacre in December, 1890 and the perspective of Catherine Weldon, a white woman who sympathizes with the Native Americans. Like Achille during the slave raid in his ancestral village, Catherine cannot do anything but witness the massacre of over one-hundred Native Americans by the U.S. cavalry. Walcott links the breach of contract in his own marriage to the breach of contract in the treaties signed between the Native Americans and the United States government. Book four also contains an extended imagining of Walcott’s own father, Warwick (who died when he was one) telling him he needs to visit various capitals of the Old World before he will be able to understand the experience of his colonial native home. Warwick Walcott tells his son that journeys are circular.

Book 5: On is father’s advice, Walcott visits four destinations: Lisbon, London, Dublin, and the Aegean Islands. Each of these four places has unique significance for the poet: Lisbon was an important site for the African slave trade, London bears the weight of being the center of English imperialism, Dublin called up associations with literary forebears like Joyce since Walcott analogized between the colonial subjection of Ireland and of the West Indies, and finally the Aegean Islands represent the cradle of Western civilization. What the poet learns, finally, is not to imitate, or use the structures that belong to these centers of (literary) culture to write the literature of the Caribbean but to focus more on gathering material from the immediate world around him.

Book 6: Back in St. Lucia, Hector is in a fatal accident because of his reckless driving of his passenger van (called the Comet). Achille and Helen reconcile after Hector’s death, and Achille also honors his friends memory. Maud also dies in this section, succumbing to cancer. After his wife’s death, Plunkett realizes the great burden which he has placed on his Irish wife who has always wished to return to Dublin, though she had learned to live in St. Lucia. He realizes too that his obsessive project of trying to find Homeric parallels to “build a history” for St. Lucia was futile: “Why not see Helen as the sun saw her, with no Homeric shadow?” Walcott, of course, has the same realization and essentially repudiates the methods of his own poem. The other major event which happens in this book is Ma Kilman’s successful healing of Philoctete’s shin wound. She finds a cure by following a trail of ants into the mountains to a specific African herb. Thus, the book is largely about reconciliations, and these reconciliations mirror the poet’s own maturing process and reconciliation to the native colonial landscape.

Book 7: Omeros is a character in this final book that serves as a kind of guide to Walcott. He underscores the lesson which Walcott has already learned, that he should concentrate on what he sees in his surroundings rather than worry about framing his account with appropriately authoritative literary structures. Major characters like Major Plunkett and Achille have also learned to be more present and aware of their surroundings; Plunkett gives up the project of writing a history and bringing English “order” to the land, and Achille returns to his original work of fishing. The final lines suggest a sort of continuity between the lives that these characters now live and the natural landscape: “When he (referring to Achille) left the beach the sea was still going on.”


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