Friday, January 14, 2011

Book 45, St Lucia: “Omeros” by Derek Walcott

Epic poem FTW!

Oddly enough, I think I’ve heard Omeros being talked about more as a novel in verse, like Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask, rather than a Homeric epic as its title obviously suggests.

Methinks the epic title is much more justly deserved: after all, the narrative line here is constellated and mysterious as only the laws of poetry would allow. The characters are humble in profession but are based on figures from the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the poet insistently claims these ebony descendants of slaves are the equals of the marmoreal Hellenes, and indeed they undergo spirit quests and epiphanies and ritual battles and are the most beautiful women in the world all the same.

(Yeah, we’ve had a stretch of boring covers these past few weeks.)

Truth is, I can’t quite match every character to its corresponding figure in Greek Myth: Achille, Hector, Philoctete and Helen are easy, of course, and Ma Kilman must be Circe and Maud Plunkett Penelope because of their witchery and quilting respectively.

But Ulysses corresponds to Seven Seas, Major Plunkett and the narrator himself, each of whom are wanderers of the globe: yes, Walcott intrudes in first-person, expounding on racism in Concord and imperialism in London before making it back to St Lucia to attend one of his own characters’ funerals. Good of him to intrude, really: not quite the self-indulgence you get in Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, but instead a kind of humility, recognizing the artificiality of him, a Dante-spouting globalised academic, daring to represent the subaltern mackerel fishers in their pirogues and village huts.

Oh, and the American tourists are the parasitical suitors of Penelope in Ithaca. Took me a while to figure that out.

Warning to those of you who’ll pick it up yourselves: the beginning’s mighty confusing, so give it time. You’ll be rolling with the maritime illogic of the poem in a few dozen pages.

And how nice that Walcott specifically sets his story in St Lucia, with all its geographical features intact, never mind that no-one’s heard of Castries and Gros-Îlet and Soufrière. Somehow the way a few other writers set their tales in generic or fictional localities depresses me a little. We citizens of small countries find it difficult to take pride in where we come from sometimes.

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

And ah, he makes metered slant rhyme look so easy.

Representative quote:

I sang of quiet Achille, Afolabe’s son,
who never ascended in an elevator,
who had no passport, since the horizon needs none,

never begged nor borrowed, was nobody’s waiter,
whose end, when it comes, will be a death by water
(which is not for this book, which will remain unknown

and unread by him). I sang the only slaughter
that brought him delight, and that from necessity –
of fish, sang the channels of his back in the sun.

I sang our wide country, the Caribbean Sea.

Next book: Kamau Brathwaite’s The Arrivants, from Barbados.

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