Bruce Woodcock

Omeros (1990) helped Derek Walcott win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. This achievement gave further international recognition to the creative outpouring from the Caribbean since 1945. Walcott's own part in this is outstanding and his work places him as one of the foremost poets in the second half of the twentieth century.

Omeros, with its appropriations of Homeric epic tradition, is a product of 'translation', not so much in the linguistic sense, but in the wider sense of 'cultural translation' as invoked in postcolonial studies. The idea of the postcolonial subject and writer as 'translated' is one which Salman Rushdie proposed in his essay 'Imaginary Homelands' (1992), where he points out that the word 'translation' is derived from the Latin for 'bearing across': 'Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained' (Rushdie, 1992, p. 17). What Stuart Hall calls 'such cultures of hybridity' are 'the product of several interlocking histories' (Hall, 1992, p. 310), and create a postcolonial awareness which translates the world around it. Walcott himself has been shaped by a process of cultural translation which informs his 'translation' of the Homeric epic in Omeros. At the end of Book Three, in one of the most moving passages in the poem, he introduces the figure of his mother, suffering memory loss associated with old age, unable to recognize her son who tries desperately to remind her of her past since she has 'a lot to remember'. Her response 'as she fought / her memory' is '[s]ometimes I ask myself who I am'. This resonates throughout Omeros, not least for the narrator himself, displaced from his island roots by his life in America and feeling the dislocation as seemingly irrecoverable histories which he nevertheless knows himself to be part of. Invoking the language of slavery he states

I felt transported, past shops smelling of cod to a place I had lost in the open book of the street, and could not find.

It was another country, whose excitable gestures I knew but could not connect with my mind, like my mother's amnesia; untranslatable . . .

with tongues of a speech I no longer understood, but where my flesh did not need to be translated.

Walcott is well aware of the contradictory legacies of such cultural translations. Hence, Omeros is a work which, rather than translating Homer, translates Walcott's home island of St Lucia into the epic dimension of the Homeric form; but at the same time, it interrogates the notion of such translations, and asserts the actuality of the lived experience of the island, outside the artificial confines of literature and art. It aims to heal the cultural schizophrenia of a hybrid history and the translations of the colonial process. Walcott was born in St Lucia in 1930. The island was fought over by the British and the French, and is predominantly French Roman Catholic (90 per cent) with a strong French creole element even though English is the official language. Walcott's family, however, was Methodist: he had white grandfathers and black grandmothers, and was brought up in an atmosphere dominated by English culture. This gap between black French Roman Catholic and white English Methodist cultural traditions Walcott has seen as a schizophrenia (Walcott, 1998, p. 4) between which he translates and is translated, 'wrenched by two styles' (Walcott, 1972, p. 61).

This might suggest Walcott suffers from a Naipaul-like sense of the West Indies as a void. For instance, in 'What the Twilight Says' Walcott asks: 'Slaves, the children of slaves, colonials, then pathetic, unpunctual nationalists, what have we to celebrate?' (Walcott, 1998, p. 18), which suggests a sense of hopelessness, exile or loss which might be epitomized by his poem 'The Gulf'. But the question is not merely rhetorical; it is open, and shows Walcott's divergence from Naipaul. In 1972 Naipaul famously damned the West Indies by saying 'nothing has ever been created in the West Indies, and nothing will ever be created'; in 1974, Walcott took this formula and turned it on its head by saying '[n]othing will always be created in the West Indies . . . because what will come out of there is like nothing one has ever seen before' (Hamner, 1993, p. 54). In both poetry and drama Walcott shows what West Indians do have to celebrate: a sense of newness, strength and potential emerging from the distortions of history and poverty. One of the ways in which he celebrates this is by exploiting and translating (almost in an alchemical sense) his cultural schizophrenia, rather than merely suffering from it. He recognizes his capacity for what he calls 'cunning assimilation' (Walcott, 1998, p. 43), for being a 'mulatto of style', a 'mongrel . . . bastard . . . hybrid' who exploits the cultural diversity from which he comes (ibid., p. 9). He visualizes 'the forging of a language that went beyond mimicry ... by the writer's making creative use of his schizophrenia, an electric fusion of the old and the new' (ibid., pp. 15—16). For Walcott, the 'Muse of History' should enable, not enslave, the writer's imagination (ibid., pp. 36—64). The fundamental drive of Omeros is to liberate the island and the writer from the colonial past, translating them so they may be seen anew.

There are a number of narrative strands in Omeros, functioning on individual and socio-historical levels. The opening focus is the rivalry between the close friends Achille and Hector for Helen. The story charts the relationships between the three characters as Achille's friendship is riven by jealousy when Helen leaves him for Hector, until Hector's death leads to Helen's return. Broadening from this are the stories of other villagers: Philoctete's wounded shin and eventual healing are used to explore themes of redemption and renewal, both personal and historical; the blind Seven Seas acts as both a character in his own right and as a griot surrogate for Homer/Omeros, who takes various forms throughout; Ma Kilman's shop becomes a focus for communal gatherings and she acts as seer and obeah woman; while the fishing community more generally provides a social back-cloth, dramatizing the changing nature of the village in the face of increasing commercialism. In addition, Achille's dream journey to Africa invokes the history of the Caribbean from a black perspective, re-enacting slavery and the Middle Passage, while Helen acts as the emblem of the island of St Lucia itself.

Alongside these stories and involved with them is the story of retired Regimental Sergeant Major Dennis Plunkett and his wife Maud (who, like Hector, dies at the end of the work). Elements of Plunkett's story parallel that of Achille, in particular his past journeying, his sense of loss and displacement and his investigation of history. As with Achille's African dream, this involves the legacies of a personal and historical community, in this case the British Empire and the character of Midshipman Plun-kett: sent as a spy for Admiral Rodney to reconnoitre Dutch forces prior to the Battle of the Saints in 1782 which gave control of St Lucia and the West Indies back to the British. He is adopted by Plunkett as the son he never had.

The final strand belongs to a poet—narrator figure whose function is both to tell the stories of the villagers and to disrupt the narrative illusion, calling into question the role of the poet in relation to literary tradition and life. The narrator's story, like Walcott's own, is one of displacement from his home island, exile in Boston, and also of failed love and marriage. He also recounts the story of nineteenth-century Native American supporter Catherine Weldon, and has had an affair with a Greek sculptress named Antigone whose bust of Homer (Omeros) is the seed for his imaginative translation of his island and its people. The narrator is seen as the point of origin of the stories and at the same time becomes involved with the characters: after Maud's death we find him 'attending / the funeral of a character I'd created', meeting Plunkett, and revealing that he had been trained by him as a cadet. Such effects create a metafic-tional displacement designed to expose the fictionality of the story being told so convincingly while reasserting the fictional illusion. Walcott's narrator undermines the realism of the story, only to reinforce it as part of a drive to make the reader see the characters in a true light, not just as figments of poetic imagining.

The structure of the poem indicates the extent to which this strategic imperative takes over. Omeros is in seven books. Book One introduces all the main characters, including the narrator, but is dominated by the stories of Achille's argument with Hector over Helen, and the tensions between Plunkett and his wife. Book Two covers

Plunkett's investigations of the island's history and the story of the young Midshipman, then deals with the Achille, Helen and Hector story through the medium of the island's election campaign. Book Three covers Achille's dream journey to Africa to witness the enslavement of his father's people and his eventual return, but it ends with the re-emergence of the narrator. The narrator's story dominates Books Four and Five, developing into a virtual tour of European colonialism. Book Six finds the narrator back on the island directly involved with his imagined characters as Hector dies in a crash and Maud dies of cancer. Book Seven concludes the work with the narrator accompanying his mentor, the ghostly Omeros, on a Dantesque journey to the island's volcano, releasing the narrator from his own artistic blindness to a fresh vision of the island and its people.

This theme of transformation and renewal is at the heart of the work, but equally so is an investigation of the corruption of St Lucia by past European colonialism and by current economic imperialism embodied in tourism. Thus Omeros is both an exposé and a celebratory paean. Walcott's involvement with the life of the island has always been integral to his artistic practice, an autobiographical exploration of which figured strongly in his Caribbean version of Wordsworth's The Prelude, Another Life (1973). In Omeros he continues this with vivid depictions of the natural environment as well as the people, but he also inflects it with a wider historical dimension. The island becomes representative of a significant section of world history, through its role in the story of European colonialism, and this allows an 'epic' dimension. Walcott's characters are seen within history, and those individual, communal and world-historical levels run in tandem throughout. At the same time the poem insists on the immediacy and individuality of life on the island, which is threatened by present trends. This double edge, critique and celebration, is embodied in the recurrent image given to the narrator by the ghost of his dead father at the end of Book One: 'simplify / your life to one emblem, a sail leaving harbour / and a sail coming in'. This image recurs a number of times, reinforcing Walcott's more general sense as a poet of the double-ness of experience and of art: the sail is both a loss and a return, and could be either or both. For Walcott's poetic practice, the ambiguity of the image is all and is the 'truth' of poetry.

When Achille returns from his dream journey to Africa, Seven Seas asks him to rake up the leaves in his yard and Achille decides to 'clean up this whole place'. His desire to sweep away the past inevitably leads to its uncovering: the day is 'one of those Saturdays that contain centuries' with 'the strata of history layered underheel'. He sees the iguana, after whom the original inhabitants of St Lucia, the Aruacs, named the island 'Iounalao', and Seven Seas reminds Achille that, before colonialism and slavery, 'this used to be their place'. 'Achille / found History that morning' as he uncovers a carved Aruac totem which he throws away in fear. The episode is a reminder of the contradictory act of desecration and celebration which opens Omeros as Philoctete recites for the tourists the story of how the fishermen cut down the cedars to make their canoes. This 'decimation' is seen as both a defamation of the Aruac gods of the forest and as a necessary sacrifice: the fishermen are 'like barbarians' in the aftermath of the lost culture of the Aruacs, having to create a culture of their own. The narrator suggests as much later in the poem when he reflects on the problematic translations involved in the process of 'diaspora, exodus', recalling this opening episode:

Men take their colours as the trees do from the native soil of their birth, and once they are moved elsewhere, entire cultures lose the art of mimicry, and then, where the trees were, the fir, the palm, the olive, the cedar, a desert place widens in the heart. This is the first wisdom of Caesar, to change the ground under the bare soles of a race.

While people are not 'simply chameleons, self-dyeing our skins / to each background', connections to place and environment help shape identity. Physical translation from Africa to the Caribbean meant that the ex-slaves had to translate themselves and their inheritances into a new register. Achille's ancestor, Afolabe, was himself translated into 'Achilles' by his slave master, 'which, to keep things simple, he let himself be called'. The 'wisdom of Caesar' is the colonial legacy against whose internal and external imperatives the 'liberated' ex-colonials must still struggle. But equally a creative acceptance of change is seen as something to be embraced in the forging of a new culture, a process of re-naming the New World which has always obsessed Walcott. Weaving language and imagery to intersect different strands and sections, Walcott connects the lives of the individual characters with the complex web of colonial and pre-colonial histories working at a personal and more generally social level and shadowing the present.

This dense overlapping of histories is present in all the threads of the narrative structure. When the narrator asks 'Where did it start?' his question refers simultaneously to the stories of the characters in the poem, including the narrator himself, the history of the island, of the empire which shaped it, of the Africans who were its displaced victims and survivors, and those lost Aruac tribes who originally inhabited the island. As Plunkett realizes, 'All roots have their histories.' The poem reveals just how intertwined those roots are, aiming to release the present and future from the past by confronting it, acknowledging its legacies as both bad and good, and moving on.

Plunkett's past is the contradictory heritage of the British Empire. Physically and psychologically wounded in the Second World War, Plunkett naively seeks a new life with Maud in an 'Eden', 'somewhere . . . where what they called history could not happen.' Ironically, his choice of St Lucia leads him to confront the brutal legacy of British imperialism and to witness its overthrow. This is miniaturized in the quarrel between Maud and Helen, who works for the Plunketts as housemaid. Maud sees Helen as 'our trouble . . . the arrogant servant that ruled their house'; at the same time 'the island was once / named Helen', suggesting an analogy between the power struggle being waged in the Plunkett household and the struggle for independence in the ex-colonial territories. Plunkett's realization that 'Empire was ebbing' is manifested in Helen's appropriation of Maud's yellow dress and in Plunkett's own obsession with Helen's beauty. His investigations into the island's history transfer his obsession from one to the other, becoming a virtual infidelity to Maud. Plunkett realizes that the history which he wants to preserve and celebrate, the days when 'history was easy', the history of Admiral Rodney, of his ancestral Midshipman and the empire he served, 'will be rewritten / by black pamphleteers, History will be revised, / and we'll be its villians [sic], fading from the map'. But equally he re-enacts the imperialistic imperative in his obsessive lust for Helen, which he hides behind his apparently paternalistic concern. Plunkett cannot escape the bitter realization of the Empire's demise, leaving 'deserts whence our power / withdrew'. That Maud dies of the 'empire of cancer' and leaves a quilt which the narrator sees as stitched with 'an empire's guilt' reinforces the sense that the personal is imbricated with the historical and political. Yet given this role as the embodiment of a collapsed Empire, Walcott's portrait of Plunkett as 'an armchair admiral' is notably sympathetic, indicating the level of complexity which the poem achieves in its characterization and thematic treatment. With his understanding of the contradictory legacies of history and empire, Walcott does not dismiss this character as a stereotyped remnant of a past to be simplistically despised.

For the other characters, the legacies of history are equally contradictory and inescapable, shadowing the island's present attempts to remake itself. They are the 'deep evil' of Empire which Achille confronts in his dangerous dive for the tainted imperial money he hopes will win Helen back. They are also epitomized by the wine bottle 'crusted with fool's gold', which sank with Midshipman Plunkett in the Battle of the Saints only to be captured by the Cyclops-like octopus and then put on show in the island's museum. Meanwhile the narrator himself encounters history in its colonial manifestations in two forms, both very personal. While in America in Books Four and Five, he reads the memoir of Catherine Weldon, a nineteenth-century American who was deeply concerned about the plight of the Sioux, witnessing the effects of the white betrayal of the various treaties and the dispossession and massacre of tribes. The sense of white America as an imperialist entity, as 'an empire . . . that had raked the leaves of the tribes into one fire', is reinforced by linking glances at the history of plantation slavery with the narrator sardonically answering the racism of white American culture by wryly addressing Herman Melville in the mock tones of the stage negro. This episode reveals the dangers for art when it has 'surrendered / to History with its whiff of formaldehyde', and sets the scene for the poet—narrator's own odyssey towards redemption. Under the direction of his father, the narrator undertakes a tour of European colonialism at the opening of Book Five: he visits Lisbon, the port where 'Europe / rose with its terrors' after Pope Alexander Vl's papal decrees of 1493 to apportion the New World between Spain and Portugal. He visits London to find Omeros transformed into a Charon-like bargeman living as a down-and-out in Thatcher's cardboard city, while 'the tinkling Thames drags by in its ankle-irons'. The narrator delivers a vitriolic series of questions echoing the Demogorgon section of

Shelley's exposé of Empire, Prometheus Unbound, designed to indict the aftermath of Empire. He returns to America and Catherine Weldon's witnessing of the Native American 'diaspora' and genocide with the realization that 'all colonies inherit their empire's sin, / and these, who broke free of the net [i.e. white America] enmeshed a race'.

Such imagery of slavery haunts the poem from the outset, along with 'the shame, the self-hate' which is its residue, and the need to confront and transform that past. Emblematic of this is Philoctete's incurable wound, caused by an anchor but which 'he believed . . . came from the chained ankles / of his grandfathers. Or else why was there no cure?' Achille witnesses the enslavement of his own forefather's tribe in his dream journey to Africa and it is partly from Africa that the cure for history's wound comes. Achille's view of the historical enslavement is contradictory, since he wants to save his father and his people and at the same time he knows the future to which it will lead, a future he would not wish to deny. Out of the horrendous suffering and lost identities of slavery, the poem envisages the potential for a translated identity emerging, as the survivors who crossed the Middle Passage 'felt the sea-wind tying them into one nation ... in the one pain'. It is Ma Kilman, in her role as obeah woman, who cures Philoctete's wound using a plant whose seed came from Africa carried by the sea swift whose presence haunts Achille's journey as an almost anthropomorphic emblem. Ma Kilman bathes the wound using 'one of those cauldrons from the old sugar-mill', an emblem of how the colonial past is being transformed by the present. The 'self-healing island' epitomizes a wider sense of renewal and creativity in the aftermath of empire, which is what motivates Walcott to reveal how the individual stories of St Lucians and of the island embody an 'epical splendour' of survival and re-creation.

The interactions of individual and history are partly what gives Omeros its epic dimension, placing the life of the island on the stage of world history. The narrator's view of 'our epic horizon' suggests that the lives of these people matter and that their histories are a significant part of the broader flow of world history. This epic dimension is reinforced through Walcott's deliberate and often ironic invocations of epic parallels with Homer. So the names of the main characters, Achille, Hector, Helen, Philoctete, are analogous with central characters from Homer, Philoctete sharing the fate of his namesake in the form of his seemingly incurable wound. There are many incidental echoes in imagery, with the Cyclops appearing as a lighthouse and as the covetous colonial octopus guarding the treasure which Achille tries to plunder, as well as the hurricane which devastates the island. Hector's van in which he dies is seen as a 'chariot', the satirical portrayal of the island's election is fought as a war between Greeks and Trojans, while the narrator eventually sees Plunkett as a 'khaki Ulysses' to his own Telemachus. There is a similarly flexible re-creation of some aspects of Homeric style, with modified epic similes employed to describe Rodney's ships in battle as pelicans, for example. Often there is a self-knowing quality about these invocations of Homeric analogies. At one point, the narrator thinks of the blind 'Old St Omere', known as Seven Seas from his claim to have sailed the world, possibly nodding in tribute to Walcott's St Lucian friend, painter Dunstan St Omer; only to realize wryly 'Homer and Virg are New England farmers, / and the winged horse guards their gas-station'. The parallels are also consciously displayed within the text, as when Plun-kett pursues 'Homeric coincidence' in the analogy of Helen with the island. The Homeric links have direct thematic functions, as with the Circe imagery associated with the experience of slavery and the pig farm which Plunkett runs. Both are seen as products of a 'swinish' Empire manacling slaves and masters equally, a dialectical vision of the imperial legacy which has similarities with George Lamming's view of the colonial process as a 'reciprocal' one in which Prospero is as dehumanized as Caliban, however differently (Lamming, 1960, p. 156). Part of the 'odyssey' in the poem's navigation of history is to disrupt the binaries of colonial power so 'that parallel / is crossed, and cancels the line of master and slave'.

Nevertheless, the poem does not seek too easily to assuage the sufferings of the past. The wry request of the African tribal griot to 'remember us to the black waiter bringing the bill' shows how flexibly Walcott moves between the different levels, settings and times of the poem, reminding us that the legacies of the colonial process continue in the neocolonialism of tourism and the corruption of the island's culture. Achille sees 'what was happening to the village' as analogous to Helen: 'She was selling herself like the island', while the village 'was dying in its change, the way it whored / away a simple life' and the young 'took no interest in canoes. / That was longtime shit.' In the desperate drive to make money, the village 'had become a souvenir / of itself' under the reductive gaze of tourism's desire for 'photogenic poverty'.

But the poem makes plain that the narrator himself is also in danger of not seeing what is truly there. The narrator accuses himself of wanting to keep the island picturesque for the purposes of poem-making:

Didn't I want the poor to stay in the same light so that I could transfix them in amber, the afterglow of an empire, preferring a shed of palm-thatch with tilted sticks to that blue bus-stop?

From this viewpoint, the narrator realizes, 'Art is History's nostalgia', incapable of making the real contribution to the making of a new culture demanded by the circumstances of actual cultural translation. The narrator's desire to translate the island into the epic forms of Homer is interrogated as the wrong kind of translation. Book One introduced the narrator invoking Omeros, and the incident which might be seen as the origin of the poem, his lost love affair with the Greek sculptress Antigone, who had made a bust of Homer and taught the narrator to pronounce 'Omeros' correctly. It is the narrator's pursuit of this muse figure which leads him into a misrepresentation of his island, as he becomes 'blinded' by the 'elegies' of history. But the narrator gradually realizes that this desire to ennoble his island through Homeric translation embroiders a falsifying pattern onto life, as with Maud's imperialist quilt, trapping the present in a past transposed from elsewhere. Looking at Helen, the narrator acknowledges that, like Plunkett, he has misrepresented her:

There, in her head of ebony, there was no real need for the historian's remorse, nor for literature's. Why not see Helen as the sun saw her with no Homeric shadow.

In his desire to 'enter that light beyond metaphor' the narrator commits himself to an art that can contribute a genuine truth to life by seeing 'the light of St Lucia at last through her own eyes', answering the poem's opening view that he can only 'catch the noise / of the surf lines' through the 'egg-white eyes' of the blind Omeros. His misrepresentation of his island through the lens of Homeric tradition, like Philoctete's wound or the corruption of the island by tourism, must be purged before any renewal can be achieved, personal or communal. It is for this reason that the narrator undertakes his dream journey to the volcano with Seven Seas/Omeros as a purgation from which he wakes healed. This self-interrogation and self-indictment of its own project is one of the most remarkable aspects of the poem, since it questions what contribution art can really make to the process of creating a new culture. All the narrative dislocations of the poem, in which the narrator both tells the story and interacts with his own characters, are designed to create for the reader this sense of encountering actual life not merely as fiction but as reality.

Walcott has said in interview that his aim was not to create a 'reproduction' of Homer, nor a Homeric template in the manner of Joyce's Ulysses (Henriques, 1993). Indeed the whole drive of the poem is to expose such a project as delusory, reflecting ironically back on his own continuing obsession with a Caribbean odyssey (see Thieme, 1999, pp. 151—97). This is brilliantly satirized in the last book, when the poet—narrator confronts his mentor, Omeros, and admits that he'd never read his master's work, 'not all the way through', while 'the gods and the demi-gods aren't much use to us'. Instead his use of Homer is, as usual with Walcott's appropriation of literary styles and traditions, extraordinarily flexible. Not content with having his Omeros be Homer, he also has him as Virgil and Dante. In the last book, Omeros/Seven Seas takes the narrator on a visit to the island's volcano, called Male-bolge after a region of Hell in Dante's Inferno (Canto 18), where the satirical encounters with speculators making money from the island and with a pit full of poets trying to drag the narrator down to their own level are clearly modelled on Dante. The form of the poem, too, in general is a modified version of Dante's terza rima, but as with his other creative appropriations, Walcott's use of this form is in no way restricted to the original. He keeps enough of the pattern to maintain shape but is quite willing to playfully depart from it as necessary (Hamner, 1997, pp. 4—5).

As this suggests, Walcott mixes a wide variety of traditions, rather than forcing Homer onto his material. He also deploys African folk-tale methods and gods in the description of the hurricane, exuberantly cross-hatching them with Greek elements.

This flexibility is part of the emerging traditions of the postcolonial long poem, in which diverse elements are creatively re-cast and translated. Examples which spring to mind are Seamus Heaney's 'Station Island', Les Murray's Fredy Neptune, Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate and Paul Muldoon's 'Madoc — A Mystery'. This last is of particular interest since it also engages with Native American issues. Some critics have seen the scope of Omeros with its inclusion of such material and its geographical wanderings as leaving it structurally flawed (see Hamner, 1997, pp. 92—5, 106), but it is more a testament to the versatility of Walcott's imagination and the immense artistry with which he has invented this marvellous self-interrogating translation of the life of his island 'still going on'.


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PART V The Contemporary Scene

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