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derek walcott - omeros

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Language Never Fits Geography: 

Walcott’s Omeros is, as Patrick Taylor says, “a narrative of liberation”, which “recreates the past from the situation of the present with a view to the future.” This is, as Hamner argues, an epic which is informed by the need to reclaim the marginal, and as “give voice to one people’s grief” as Shabine says in Walcott’s poem The Schooner 'Flight'

However this is complicated by the postcolonial predicament foregrounded in the way “language never fits geography” as Walcott says in Poem IX in Midsummer, since “to speak or write in the imperial tongues is to call forth a problem of identity to be thrown into mimicry and ambivalence” as Simon During puts it.

In Omeros Ma Kilman’s juxtaposition of Greek and old African babble as equally alien emphasises the fact that all the characters in Omeros are in a sense castaways living an uprooted existence where the remains of a sugar plantation are the “only ruins left there by history, if history is what they are.” This historical vacuum which Walcott refers to as "the vacuum at the core of West Indian sensibility" is represented in the “hollow empty space of a forgotten name” which as Harrow suggests “gives definition to diasporic existence.”

Omeros can be seen in terms of what Thieme describes as a “quest for a Caribbean aesthetic enacted on the level of form and theme”. In looking for a way to inscribe St Lucia in a mode beyond that of a “naturalist’s notebook” as is suggested in Roots, the poem seems to begin as a demons that the Caribbean is worthy of epic treatment. However as Hamner argues while Walcott’s use of epic paraphernalia might render Omeros vulnerable to the charge of succumbing to Western hegemony, this is a central aspect of its self-reflexive questioning of its own form, dramatized through Plunkett and the ‘Walcott’ persona’s mistaken enterprise in attempting to immortalise Helen as symbol for St. Lucia by turning her into a literary icon. While Plunkett sees a parallel between his own lack of children and thus, of immortality and Helen’s lack of history, his decision to tell “not his but her story” is linked to the “vows of empire” and perhaps can be seen in Spivak’s terms as speaking for the subaltern.

The extent to which this project to construct a history for the island can constitute a repression of reality indicated in the juxtaposition of the quiet scene in Plunkett’s study with the noise and chaos of the political rally. Both Plunkett and ‘Walcott’ eventually realize that Helen has no need of a “Homeric shadow”, rejecting classic allusion as “Greek manure” as Walcott had abandoned the “yearning to be adopted” into the “mighty line of Marlow.”

As Thieme argues, Walcott’s early work can be seen as over dependent on Eurocentric models, Walcott often depicting himself as stealing from the ‘house of literature’ or, as in Latin Primer, finding a language through “the sand-encrusted kelp/of distant literatures”. This can be seen in Walcott’s Henri Christope which uses Jacobin language and the concept of hubris. Similarly in contrast to Walcott’s later use of the Odysseus figure as a way of locating ambivalence in Caribbean culture , in his early Homeric intertexts it is often difficult to see the classic parallels as subversive.This is most obvious in Omeros, an encylopediac poem conflating epic natural poetry, autbiography, histiography and poetic essay, creating a hybrid form which uses marginalised content and forms to challenge accepted patterns while exploiting western literary conventions.

As Hamner notes, while the “features of epic insinuate themselves” in Omeros, it is marked primarily by deviations, in its authorial self-projection, self-reflexive textuality “every I is a fiction finally”, and incorporation of folklore, ritual and dialect, generating a malleable style which make it a “polysemous demotic narrative” in Hamner’s words.

As Walcott argues, Omeros seems to be epic only in the sense of scale. However in taking epic conventions as points of departure, Omeros emphasises the fact that as Paul Merchant notes, the word epic has never been defined, none of its principal elements remaining intact from generation to generation.Like Omeros , Walcott;s Arkansas Testament stresses the inadequacy of the epic model in representing the Caribbean experience: “there is no wine here/the sea grapes bitter/the language that of slaves”

However as Thieme argues the Arkansas Testament also suggests the Caribbean has its own Illiads, which must be recovered within an authentic context rooted in “the love of your own people” as the Homeric guide puts it in Omeros. As Hamner argues this revalidation of the epic impulse is inspired not by scholarship but physical experience, coming down from the “elevated balcony of art.” registered in metaphors such as “my love was common as dirt”. This can be seen as similar to the poem the Light of the World, where the speaker sees a woman as emblematic of the island only to realize “there was nothing I could give them, nothing they wanted.”

This confessional self-reflexive moment is paralleled in Omeros where Walcott examines the dangers of art as history’s nostalgia which would “transfix [the poor] in amber/the afterglow of an empire.” As Natalie Melas indicates, “the postcolonial poet is suddenly haunted in a…complicit way by the colonial past, in which he recognizes… the power of its language in the formation of his poetry.” The danger of seeing the Carribean “as an idyll, there to be photographed” is represented through Achilles “losing his only soul/to the click of a Cyclops”, which provides the impetus for the journey in search of “some cave he could settle…/founding not Rome but home,” in a truncated version of the earlier dream-journey to Africa. Significantly however as Achilles’s voyage to Africa can only be undertaken in fantasy, here he re-examines his decision to leave St Lucia, paralleling Makak’s skepticism about African revivalist concepts in Dream on Money Mountain, and his eventual realization that home is neither in the past nor across the sea, but instead in the Carribean, which is represented as a place of edenic promise, the “green beginning of the world.”

The dream of returning to Africa is often figured in Caribbean literature as the journey home, what Harrow refs to as “the Caribbean dream of the return to a paternal truth” rewriting, “the wrenching from Africa, the primal mother” as “the quest of the writer son…for the undiscovered father” who is “always absent, hence undiscoverable” in Zimra’s words. As Harrow points, the voyage of diaspora tells not the story of Romantic heroism but a story of “community loss, severance and survival.” In stressing that Achille’s forgotten name is irrecoverable, this section of the poem can be seen as problematizing the possibility of recovering pre-colonial harmony.

As Harrow suggests, “a journey that concludes when it is half way over isn’t a voyage of discovery and regeneration but an exile.” Unlike Brathwaite’s The Arrivants where the authorial I seems to have little trouble accessing ancestral, or present-day, African codes since, despite the best efforts of empire, "all Africa / is one, is whole," Achille’s African explorations foregrounds the importance of the attempt at recovery by suggesting that direct access to the codes of the past has been shattered by colonial history.

As in The Schooner Flight, where Shabine’s “one theme” is the “vain search for… a guiltless horizon”, conceding the search can never be over places the emphasis on the voyage itself. Achille’s feeling of being “homesick…for unsettlement” suggests that as Paula Burnett argues the Odysseus figure as a drifter can be seen as a personification of the Carribean identity and of the migrant predicament “poised between restless journeying and longing for a home.” As Thieme argues, this figure embodies the type of migrant subjectivity of the new world poet, and “offers an emancipation from Manichean binaries, crossing lines longitudinal and latitudinal and encouraging a similar movement along a discursive continuum”.

With St Lucia as the anchor, the poem traces a circular odyssey into the ancestry of the New World, suggesting the way in which the new world is dependent as Terada notes, not on originality but on the permutations of the old worlds of Europe, African and Asia. While critics such as Benfey and Leithauser have critised the “bathetic trips” to Europe and America as narratively peripheral, this could be read in terms of Mukherjee’s argument that postcolonial writers have had to build structures which “may seem loose or episodic but which have coherence of judged in accordance with forms of experiences they set out to explore.”As Thieme has argued, Walcott “creates his own discursive universe” resisting both derivative relations and adversarial responses, rejecting a literature of recrimination and despair which is locked into ‘phonetic pain’.

He does not choose between “this Africa” and the English tongue, but deciding to deny neither, finds a connection to both the words Ashanti and Warwickshire through “the faith of using the old names anew.” This can be seen in the way Walcott adapts Homer for the Caribbean by creolizing him, as Thieme notes “using the play of signification to suggest words have multiple origins which frustrate attempts to assign them to a single culture”. As Ingalls points out epic composition always draws upon a cross-cultural inheritance and in Omeros, Walcott transforms various strands of racial and cultural material. This new world assimilation of influences foregrounds Walcott’s idea of mimicry and the assimilation of other voices as creative, stressing, in Thieme’s words “the need for a porous culture, geographies which erode the static essentialism of binary classifications.”

This is represented in the paralleling of scenes across either side of the Atlantic throughout the poem, and the replication of the scene with the Sioux village and the African village, pointing to the common plight of the dispossessed, as is underscored b the apocalyptic commentary “this had happened before I knew it would happen again.” As in the Muse of History Omeros takes the view history itself imposes a western view on events, stressing a linear causological explanation, a notion of progress which is inadequate in the caribbean where as Walcott puts it in the Almond Trees “there is no visible history”.

While writers such as Naipaul have referred to the difficulty of finding the right tone to write the history of the West Indies, since “history was built around achievement and creation and nothing was created in the West Indies,” Walcott represents this loss not in the context of the image of the Caribbean as the marginalized vestige of a distant continent, but as “the early morning of a culture that is defining itself.”

Walcott suggests that the fitting together of the fragmentary is characteristic of Antillean art, seeing the archipelago as a synonym for “pieces broken off from the original continent” representing a “shipwreck of fragments…not decayed but strong.” while Peter Breslin suggests Walcott’s aesthetic is “to some extent essentialist and foundational” at odds with the relativism of metropolitan postmodernism, this concern with “cultural, linguistic, and psychological displacement” in Terada’s words, has led some critics to suggest his affinity with the postmodern, putting him in a tradition of Caribbean writing which as Michael Dash says goes beyond “simply creating alternative systems to reflect the futility of all attempts to construct total systems.” However it is important to keep in mind that, as Slemon suggests postmodernist readings can overvalue the deconstructive energies of postcolonial texts, effacing the important recuperative work that is also going on within them.

The way in which the text, “creates art out of fantasy” forming “a culture that is national because it understands its own history” in Taylor’s words, is represented not only by Achille’s ghostly dream-voyage, but by also by Ma Kilman’s quest, as the attempt to remember the cure which allows her to heal Philoctete’s racial wound. Similarly, Achille’s dream journey allows him to achieve an illumination in his realization that the ceremonies he witnesses in the village replicates those in St Lucian festivals. Omeros can in this sense be seen as an epic in that it “recapitulates the physically dead yet powerful past in order to revive a living but faltering present” as Babuts put it.

At the same time, as Thieme argues, Omeros turns crossing the meridian into an act of migrancy which dismantles historically constructed borders in order to create a new world identity. Walcott’s use of geographic tropes to challenge literary structures based on histiographic models could be read in terms of the new interpretation of the map in some postcolonial literatures, “not as a means of spatial containment but as a medium of spatial perception which allows for the reformulation of links both within and between cultures” as Huggan put it, as the swift in Omeros stitches together both sides of the text, “interlocking basins of a globe in which one half fit the next”.

As in Star-Apple Kingdom this vision of a new map allows the transcending of geographical boundaries drawn up when “the Caribbean was cut up by six prime ministers who bought the sea in bolts.” Attempting to create a space beyond geographical divisions, while telling a story about homecoming and roots, Omeros is as Taylor suggests, a “creative because it is a work without an end”, the narrative ending while the “sea was still going on.”


written: 2008
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