Friday, March 17, 2017

Derek Walcott: An asterisk the size of the sea

Near the end of Derek Walcott's epic poem Omeros, the poet/narrator takes stock of his attempts to translate the history and people of St. Lucia into poetry, and he realizes the transience of his efforts:

I was an ant on the forehead of an atlas,
the stroke of one spidery palm on a cloud’s page,
an asterisk only.

I put an asterisk next to Omeros on my fall Honors Literature syllabus, uncertain whether to assign the book instead of Life of Pi; then I saw that Walcott had died today and I picked up Omeros again to find a fitting epitaph, and soon I was certain: I want to teach this book again, even if today's first-year students are ill equipped to understand it.

I've assigned "The Sea is History" and other short poems in the postcolonial literature class, but I encountered Walcott first through Omeros, which remains among my all-time favorite books, growing deeper and richer with each reading. I love the way the incidents wash up like waves, each adding a new layer of meaning, and I love the echoes of other works, from The Odyssey to Ulysses to Hamlet to Moby Dick to Heart of Darkness.  

But most of all I love the way Walcott weaves together so many stories to show the complexity of the history of one small wounded island: the rivalry between Hector and Achille over the love of Helen; Major Plunkett's attempt to unearth a lost history; Achille's dream-vision of a journey to Africa to encounter his ancestors; Hector's selling out the sea to drive tourists around in a taxi; and Ma Kilman's quest to cure Philoctete's suppurating wound, a cure combining emblems of the island's history: a plant grown from seed brought from Africa, a copper kettle reclaimed from a defunct sugar mill, an herbal litany intertwining obeah with Catholic liturgy.

The poet appears as a character within the epic, occasionally commenting on and questioning his own motives. In the first book, he encounters his father's ghost, who leads him to the harbor and reminds the poet how he used to watch women "climb / like ants up a white flower-pot, baskets of coal / balanced on their torchoned heads" to feed the engines of steam ships. The ghostly father gives his son a burden of his own:

                                           They walk, you write;

keep to that narrow causeway without looking down,
climbing in their footsteps, that slow, ancestral beat
of those used to climbing roads; your own work owes them

because the couplet of those multiplying feet
made your first rhymes. Look, they climb, and no one knows them;
they take their copper pittance, and your duty

from the time you watched them from your grandmother’s house
as a child wounded by their power and beauty
is the chance you now have, to give those feet a voice.

Many pages later, though, after the poet has sent his characters through hell and back, he wonders whether he is simply exploiting their pain for his own benefit. Seven Seas/Omeros, who serves as muse, reminds him that 

                                           there are two journeys
in every odyssey, one on worried water,

the other crouched and motionless, without noise.
For both, the ‘I’ is a mast; a desk is  a raft
for one, foaming with paper, and dipping the beak

0f a pen in its foam, while an actual craft
carries the other to cities where people speak
a different language, or look at him differently,

while the sun rises from the other direction
with its unsettling shadows, but the right journey
is motionless; as the sea moves round an island

that appears to be moving, love moves round the heart—
with encircling salt, and the slowly travelling hand
knows it returns to the port from which it must start.
Walcott kept returning to his home port throughout his poetry, reaching out in every direction to reel in all the world. No matter how many waves of meaning came washing in on his native shores, he consistently heeded the advice of the ghostly father in Omeros: "simplify / your life to one emblem, a sail leaving harbor // and a sail coming in." He leaves behind a legacy of poetry that will stand among the greatest of the ages, but he also leaves a hole the size of the sea in the hearts of his readers.

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