Faces in a Broken Mirror : OMEROS, <i> By Derek Walcott</i> . <i> (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $25; 325 pp.)</i>
The West Indies is a rich soil for poetry. Some would attribute this, as Lord Byron did, to the fact that in places where the weather is tropical and clothes are worn loosely if at all, there’s a special vitality that finds its way into the language. This is certainly true of the West Indies’ prominent voice today, the poet Derek Walcott, though it really doesn’t explain why Walcott has achieved his standing in 20th-Century literature.
While Walcott’s poems are suffused with pretty island imagery and a blend of Yankee, African and French patois, he has not made a career out of reproducing the scenery for tourists. Walcott’s artistic life has been engrossed in the West Indian struggle for personal and cultural identity.
Colonialism and empire-building garner some responsibility for the unique circumstances found in the West Indies. Some islands have changed hands so often that today it is not unusual to find the native populace of an English island living in a Dutch village, speaking French and listening to Spanish music.
In Walcott’s works we are shown how this variety that has been the centerpiece of West Indian culture also is its curse. Answering the question “What does it mean to be West Indian?” is like trying to consider one’s reflection in the numerous, broken pieces of a mirror. The African heritage of many West Indians adds to their sense of “otherness,” the sense that another culture is a part of them but that it is removed, far away in the haze of history.
In Walcott’s new work, “Omeros” (the modern Greek for Homer), the struggle for identity adds new dimensions with its allusions to Greek epic poetry. It is no surprise that a poet so concerned with the question of identity should be attracted to the wanderings of Odysseus described in the “Odyssey.” “Omeros” is about quests. Odysseus’ grief and isolation from his home, 19 years after the Trojan War ended, is evoked by many of the characters.
The story begins, as does the “Iliad,” with war for a girl named Helen. She is a West Indian housemaid, and the rivalry she stirs is not between kings but between two humble fishermen, appropriately known as Hector and Achille.
Suffering for his love of Helen, Achille (pronounced ah-SHEEL) broods among the fishermen’s canoes as the Achilles of the “Iliad” broods when his concubine is taken by Agamemnon--only Achille’s anger in “Omeros” is not just for Helen but also for the island he sees being taken over by commercialism. On a Friday evening as the village prepares for a big party, Achille turns his back on the corruption he senses is settling into place. He escapes in his boat to the ocean where he has an unexpected vision of his African identity.
As in many of Walcott’s works, revelation comes in the form of a dream. Adrift at sea, out of sight of the land, Achille dreams of Africa. As Odysseus is reunited with his son in the “Odyssey,” Achille meets his ancestral past in the father he never knew:
...his hair was surf Curling round a sea-rock,
the forehead a frowning river, As they swirled in the estuary
of a bewildered love, and Time stood between them.
Culture and heritage are transformed into a powerful, life-giving figure in Achille’s dream, translated by Walcott into primal images of the ocean.
While Achille pursues his ancestral roots, another identity crisis is endured by Dennis Plunkett, whose former service as a British officer is a stigma he carries to the islands. Though he and his wife have made the island their home, they are unable to escape the legacy of British Imperialism in the West Indies. Plunkett suffers from historical guilt. He thinks the natives glare at him with the same contempt they have for tourists. It is impossible just to join them relaxing under the eaves of a house because “their view of him would always remain/One of patronage.” The shadow of Empire continually frustrates his chances for brotherhood.
Walcott’s insight into Achille and Plunkett, the native and the outsider, is due to the unique vantage point he possesses. With Walcott descended of a white grandfather and a black grandmother on his paternal and maternal sides, the division he witnesses in his West Indian society is in himself. Critics often refer to his background with the term “cultural schizophrenia.” Walcott’s sense of “otherness” has left him, as he says in his early poem “A Far Cry From Africa,” “divided in the vein.” His characters often reflect his own attempts to reconcile the polarized worlds that are part of him.
While Achille and Plunkett, among other colorful characters, occupy our attention for half of the book, it is Walcott himself who commands the remainder. In a startling transition, the poet directly enters the story to continue the narrative.
The message of “Omeros” grows with the poet’s entrance. Walcott takes us on a restless search around the world. He goes to places that have been scenes of great cultural violence. Along the way, he acquires Homer for a guide, echoing Dante’s journey with Virgil in “The Divine Comedy.” By putting his story into this mythic frame, he emphasizes how every person--not just the West Indian-- should feel the same sense of displacement and isolation.
But Walcott’s philosophical intentions in “Omeros” never come closer to being realized than when he turns the criticism upon himself. Divestiture, as an artist, is Walcott’s forte. He considers his own dangerous use of metaphors: “When would I not hear the Trojan War/in two fishermen cursing?” he asks near the end. The poet’s danger, like every person’s, is to distance himself from human suffering by reinterpreting it.
On a less philosophical level, Walcott’s poetry is very beautiful. There are many sections that could be anthologized as separate works of poetry. In one particularly lovely section near the story’s beginning, a mood is painted for that special moment when lovers are waking together.
Some readers may not like the shift halfway through the story when the poet narrates his own journey around the world. At the level of theory, it works wonderfully to encompass humanity in its theme. As reading, however, it is disconcerting to become involved in the lives of people like Achille and Plunkett, and then to be separated from their story for a hundred pages. The story of the characters, and the story the poet tells, are like two works unwisely put between the covers of one book.
Walcott has denied calling “Omeros” an “epic” poem, like the works of Homer, but this word certainly describes the effort that went into its creation. Walcott pursues the use of myth to make his own investigations into the meaning of race, identity and human compassion.