By Derek Walcott
Farrar Straus Giroux. 325 pp. $25
WHOEVER he was, the wandering singer or just the name for the countless singers of the Iliad and the Odyssey, Homer remains the definitive poet of the West, the remote vibrant star that rises each day on the nothing new. Three thousand years later, our own wayward time still feels the tug of gravity. If only a dwindling fraction of people can read him in the original, it is also true that some of the most innovative writing of the last 70 years or so -- James Joyce's Ulysses or Christopher Logue's War Music for example -- was produced in the myriad light of the Homeric sun.
And now comes Omeros -- its title is the Greek word for Homer -- by the West Indian poet and dramatist Derek Walcott. This massive, beguiling, sorrowful, triumphant poem is about the idea of Homer and the idea of poetry written on a Homeric scale -- big enough to accommodate history itself, to commemorate in a single exemplary book what people have done and suffered, their work, journeys, battles, those generations of men and women Homer compared with the leaves on the trees.
The recent past is littered with the fragments of failed epics. Almost every poet of merit has had a go at the "long poem," but only a handful have found success. Walcott is one of them. Omeros casts the Antilles as the Cyclades of the New World, home to the main characters, Achille and Philoctete, fishermen who set out on a journey to their ancestral land, the coast of West Africa. What happens on the way there and back, and what the other characters in a range of guises say and do -- Helen, Hector, Omeros himself -- all depends, at varying removes, on the precedent of the Homeric texts and, towards the end of the poem, on Dante's Divine Comedy. Walcott's updated characters are to some extent ciphers and the "action" has symbolic resonance; but that is because the freight of meaning the poem bears is cultural and social rather than psychological.
Omeros is not a transition or even a recreation of either of Homer's great epics. The poem lacks the stark relentless action of the Iliad; it does have more in common with the intricately circular Odyssey, with its themes of traveling and homecoming, metamorphosis and magical circumstance. The ancient epic it resembles most, however, is Ovid's Metamorphoses with its panoply of characters, its seamless episodic structure, and its panoramic treatment of a mythic world both actual and legendary.
Walcott understands that epic, a "poem including history" in Ezra Pound's phrase, encompasses tragedy. Omeros is a sustained lament for those who have fallen beneath the heel of history -- American Indians, African Americans and West Indians, people of whatever race who have felt the rod of colonial rule. Omeros is a stunning account of the tragic paradox whereby the colonial evaluates his own experience in terms of another experience which by definition can never be his. For instance, memorably:
Who decrees a great epoch? The meridian of Greenwich.
Who doles out our zeal, and in which way lies our
hope? In the cobbles of sinister Shoreditch,
in the widening rings of Big Ben's iron flower,
in the barges chained like our islands to the Thames.
Where is the alchemical corn and the light it yields?
Where, in which stones of the Abbey, are incised our names?
Who defines our delight? St Martin-in-the-Fields.
After every Michaelmas, its piercing soprano steeple.
defines our delight. Within whose palatable vault
will echo the Saints' litany of our island people?
St Paul's salt shaker, when we are worth their salt.
WALCOTT set out in the early '60s with talent to burn, a writer at the edge of empire who would beat Milton and Marvell at their own game. In his maturity he has relinquished the willful grandeur of those still impressive if often overwrought early poems and cultivated a poetry of grace and power, a sensuous and sinewy articulation which runs from patois to the high style. He gives the impression that the whole of English is at his disposal, that he can make poetry out of anything he wants to say. If his language can seem at moments exotic to the point of oddness, straining credulity ("I was a noun/ gently exhaled from the palate of the sunrise"), that is part of a larger attempt to extend the parameters of English, to make us grasp the resources of the language as if for the first time. What justifies the title of Omeros is a sense of unbridled imaginative scope, that feeling of amplitude and sensuous inclusion which we find in Homer -- and a few other writers, Lucretius, for instance, or Shakespeare or Whitman -- and which Walcott can summon as much as any other poet now living.
Omeros is a cornucopia of images, birds in flight, the sublunary movement of water, the dignity of physical work. The sheer imaginative prowess of Walcott's language, sustained over more than 300 pages, is breathtaking. He conjures the way "sand forgets a shadow in the widening sun" or he can hear "the crumpling parchment of the sea in/ the wind's hand." The Cyclops is drawn as "a blind lighthouse" that "paused like a giant, a marble cloud in its hands." Walcott's formal synthesis of Homer and Dante, his muscular, relaxed command of a hexameter line, brilliantly organized by rhyme and half-rhyme in terza rima, is equally impressive.
Poetry always jealously guards its claim to artifice, its insistence on giving us language in a transformed condition. Sometimes it seems that is all it can offer: We must be satisfied with a lesson in abstraction. Omeros is as synthetic as you like, though it offers more than the display of its own art: the challenge of comprehending a parallel world of impacted richness that complicates the reality of our own. We are used to encountering the dynamic exploration of politics and history and folk legend in the contemporary novel, the domain -- thanks to Rushdie, Marquez, Gaddis and others -- of modern epic. These tellers of tales have usurped the ancient role of the poet. Omeros is not a novel and it does not approximate the form of a novel, but it does rival the novel's mastery of a mythic, multi-dimensional narrative. Strenuous and thrilling, it swims against the tide.
Michael Heyward, an editor of the Australian literary magazine "Scripsi," is currently living in New York on a Harkness Fellowship.