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Achilles in the Caribbean

Omeros

by Derek Walcott
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 325 pp., $25.00

After playing a decisive role in the defeat and surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781, the French fleet, under its Admiral De Grasse, sailed south to carry on the war against England in the Caribbean. In April of the following year, in a naval engagement known to the English as the Battle of the Saints, De Grasse in his turn was defeated, by Admiral Rodney of the British navy, surrendering his person and his flagship, the 120-gun Ville de Paris. “Her name,” says Mahan in his classic work on the influence of sea power, “commemorating the great city whose gift she had been to the King, and the fact that no French naval commander-in-chief had before been taken prisoner in battle, conspired to bestow a peculiar brilliancy upon Rodney’s victory,” which was also “particularly…marked by a maneuver that was then looked upon as exceptionally daring and decisive—’breaking the line.’ ”

The battle acquired its name from three small islands, Les Saintes, that lie in the waters between Dominica and Guadaloupe. The French base was Port Royal on Martinique; Rodney’s, some 30 miles away, was the more southerly island of St. Lucia.

St. Lucia is the birthplace of the poet Derek Walcott and the scene of most of the action in his magnificent narrative poem Omeros, in which the memory of the battle is one of the multiple threads that weave the lives and deaths of his characters into a dazzling pattern, as varied and swift in motion as the waves and clouds of the Caribbean, a pattern that connects visions of Lisbon, London, and Dublin with the original African home of the island’s inhabitants and the Ghost Dance of the Sioux at Wounded Knee, a pattern that merges the island chain of the Antilles with that other archipelago, the isles of Greece, where Homer, who gives the poem its name, composed his Iliad and Odyssey.

Omeros is the modern Greek form of the name. The poem’s narrator heard it first from a “voice / that hummed in the vase of a girl’s throat: ‘Omeros.’ / ‘O-meros,’ she laughed. ‘That’s what we call him in Greek.’ ” He appears in the poem in various guises: as the blind man known as Seven Seas, who lives in the fishing village of Gros Ilet on St. Lucia, as the “white-eyed storyteller” who in Africa sings the tribal tale, reminding “who perished in what battle, who was swift with the arrow,” and as a vagrant bargeman, “clutching in one scrofulous / claw his brown paper manuscript,” who is driven off the steps of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London by an irate churchwarden. Modern scholarly recreations of Homer (about whose life we have no solid evidence whatsoever) usually build on the picture of Demodocus, the court minstrel of the Phaeacians in the Odyssey, who is honored and served at royal banquets. But Walcott’s poor fisherman, African griot, and London tramp are closer to an ancient tradition. In the life of Homer attributed (falsely) to Herodotus, Homer appears as an illegitimate child who became a school-teacher (a despised profession in ancient Greece) and, after losing his sight, wandered from city to city reciting his poems to earn his bread.

Seven Seas is blind, and Philoctete, another inhabitant of the village, has a stinking ulcer in his leg that refuses to heal. Hector and Achille are two fishermen, who quarrel over the affections of Helen, a young woman who works as a housemaid and a waitress and whose proud beauty turns the head of every man that sees her. All these people are black, as is Ma Kilman, who runs the No Pain Café, but Major Plunkett, who fought with Montgomery’s Eighth Army in North Africa, and his Irish wife, Maud, are white. The complicated interaction of these people is the narrative base of the poem. Helen loves Achille, but quarrels with him and goes to live with Hector, who deserts the sea to become a taxi driver with a huge “chariot” called The Comet; he dies at its wheel in an accident. Helen had been dismissed by Maud Plunkett for appropriating a pale lemon frock; Major Plunkett is half in love with Helen and because of her (“the island,” Walcott tells us, “was once named Helen”) decided “that what the place needed / was its true place in history, that he’d spend hours / for Helen’s sake on research….” He makes himself an expert on the Battle of the Saints. Maud dies of cancer; Helen, pregnant, returns to Achille, and Philoctete’s ulcer is cured by Ma Kilman, who recaptures an ancestral African memory of a healing plant.

The narrator too—“Phantom narrator, resume,” Walcott says to himself at one point in the poem—is a native of the island, but one who lives abroad, in Boston, who has traveled widely in Europe and who returns to the island to visit his mother, a widow living in a home for the aged. He too is involved in the crosscurrents of emotion that bind and divide the figures of the poem; he too is fascinated by Helen, of whom he says: “Sometimes the gods will hallow / all of a race’s beauty in a single face.” His first sight of her is that of

   a woman with a madras head-tie,
but the head proud, although it was looking for work.
I felt like standing in homage to a beauty

that left, like a ship, widening eyes in its wake.
“Who the hell is that?” a tourist near my table
asked a waitress. The waitress said, “She? She too proud!”
As the carved lids of the unimaginable
ebony mask unwrapped from its cotton-wool cloud,
the waitress sneered, “Helen.” And all the rest followed.

All these characters come fully and movingly to life in Walcott’s hands; black and white are treated with equal understanding and sympathy as they go their complicated ways. This does not, however, look at first glance like material that calls for Walcott’s evocation of his great predecessor, or the epic scale of the poem—between eight and nine thousand lines. Yet in his fluent tercets, linked by a dazzling play of rhyme, half rhyme, and assonance, the scene expands, as in the Odyssey, to the farthest reaches of the known world and also, when Achille speaks to his African ancestor, the narrator to his dead father, and Plunkett to his dead wife, beyond our world to that of the dead. And time dissolves, as black slaves, one of Achille’s forefathers among them, hoist Rodney’s cannon up to the cliff tops on St. Lucia, young Plunkett and his sweetheart, Maud, take leave of each other in Ireland before he boards the troopship, and Achille, swept eastward in a dream to the African shore, talks to his ancestor Alfolabe in a village on a branch of the Congo, just before it is attacked by another tribe in search of captives to sell “to the slavers waiting up the coast.”

The poem’s apparently narrow focus expands to infinity as images of Plunkett’s desert war—Montgomery’s triumphal entry into Tobruk—mesh with reverberations of the end of empire—the flag “sliding down from the hillstations / of the upper Punjab, like a collapsing sail”—and, farther west, the “Southern towns and plantations…maintained by convicts and emigrants who had fled / persecution and gave themselves fasces and laws / to persecute slaves” are paired with the colonists of Concord who displaced the Indians—“all colonies inherit their empire’s sin / and these, who broke free of the net, enmeshed a race.” And Homer’s Odyssey is omnipresent, in the figure of Joyce by the Liffey,—“eye-patch and tilted hat / rakish cane on one shoulder”—in the old name of Lisbon, Ulissibona, a “mud-caked settlement founded by Ulysses,” and most memorably in the narrator’s final interview with Omeros, in which he confesses that he has never read the Odyssey, “Not all the way through.”

Then there was the silence any in- jured author
knows, broken by the outcry of a frigate-bird,
as we both stared at the blue divid- ing water,

and in that gulf, I muttered, “I have always heard
your voice in that sea, master, it was the same song
of the desert shaman, and when I was a boy

your name was as wide as a bay, as I walked along
the curled brow of the surf; the word ‘Homer’ meant joy,
joy in battle, in work, in death, then the numbered peace

of the surf’s benedictions, it rose in the cedars,
in the lauriers-cannelles, pages of rustling trees.
Master, I was the freshest of your readers.”

Seven Seas–Homer takes him to the island’s volcanic crater at Soufrière but the name Walcott gives it—Male-bolge—announces that this is not Homer’s dead world but Dante’s. There, in the Pool of Speculation, he sees

the traitors

who, in elected office, saw the land as views
for hotels and elevated into waiters
the sons of others, while their own learnt something else.

This is a salute to Dante, whose terza rima he has adapted for the English ear, but the passage also sounds one of the poem’s obsessive themes: exploitation. The returning emigrant finds the island he left changed by the advent of tourism and “progress”:

the sandy alleys would go and their simple stores,
the smell of fresh bread drawn from its Creole oven,
its flour turned into cocaine, its daughters to whores,

while the DJs screamed, “WE MOVIN’, MAN! WE
MOVIN!”
but towards what?

The history of the island ever since its “discovery” by Columbus—

   A Genoan wanderer
saying the beads of the Antilles named the place
for a blinded saint

—had been one of exploitation, once colonial, now native. The opening lines of the poem show us the felling of the trees that were the gods of the displaced Aruac Indians to make canoes for the fishermen. Displacement, too, is a major theme. The place of the Aruacs is taken by enslaved Africans:

So there went the Ashanti one way, the Mandingo another,
the Ibo another, the Guinea. Now each man was a nation
in himself, without mother, father, brother.

The narrator himself is a displaced person, living in Boston, where he warms to the sight of the black sailor in Winslow Homer’s painting The Gulf Stream, but is chilled by the atmosphere once he leaves the museum. He remembers some words of Melville:

Having for the imperial colour the same imperial hue…

giving the white man ideal master- ship over every dusky tribe.”
Lawd, Lawd, Massa Melville, what could a nigger do but go down dem steps in de dusk you done describe?

So I stood in the dusk between the Greek columns
of the museum touched by the de- clining sun
on the gilt of the State House dome, on Saint Gaudens’s

frieze of black soldiers darkening on the Common,
and felt myself melting in their dusk. My collar
turned up in a real freeze. I looked for a cab,

but cabs, like the fall, were a mat- ter of colour,
and several passed, empty. In the back of one, Ahab
sat, trying to catch his whaler. I looped a shout

like a harpoon, like Queequeg, but the only spout
was a sculptured fountain’s. Sic
   transit taxi, sport.
Streetlights came on. The museum windows went out.

I have quoted this passage in full not just for its content but also for its sample of the wit and verbal play that enliven every page of this extraordinary poem. Above all, for its mastery of rhyme, a constant source of surprise and delight from stanza to stanza, a music so subtle, so varied, so exquisitely right that it never once, in more than eight thousand lines, strikes a false note. Early in the poem the narrator’s dead father shows him a vision of the women of his race carrying coal in hundredweight baskets on their heads up a steep wooden ramp on the hull of a ship; they are “Helens from an earlier time.” “Kneel to your load,” he says to his son,

   “then balance your staggering feet
and walk up that coal ladder as they do in time,
one bare foot after the next in an- cestral rhyme.

“Because Rhyme remains the parentheses of palms
shielding a candle’s tongue, it is the language’s
desire to enclose the loved world in its arms….”

And he sets his son a task:

Look, they climb, and no one knows them;
they take their copper pittances, and your duty
from the time you watched them
from your grandmother’s house
as a child wounded by their power and beauty
is the chance you now have, to give those feet a voice.”

And he has.

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