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 …