Sunday, August 04, 2019

St Lucia: Omeros, by Derek Walcott

For the small Caribbean island of St Lucia, I turned to poetry. Omeros, however, is not a typical poetry book, being a narrative in verse of 325 pages. For that reason, I was happy to count it as fiction. Although it is structured almost throughout in three line rhyming stanzas, the rhyme is not obvious. Normally when I read poetry, I linger over the language and read and re-read parts to appreciate them better. Wth prose, particularly novels, I prefer to read straight through, for the story.

In this case, I attempted to read the book as I would a prose novel, but I found that often the language slowed me down, as I paused to ponder a metaphor, or to make sense of a passage where the phrasing to fit the poetic structure obscured the meaning slightly.

The book has been described as a recasting of the Odyssey in a Caribbean setting. It is not however, a direct retelling - rather, a new story, or several interlinked stories, in which the author uses mythical tales for their themes and resonances. So we have two Caribbean fisherman, Achille and Hector, vying for the affections of the beautiful Helen, but there is no war fought over Helen - at one point, Omeros (Homer) appears to ask "do men still fight wars" and the answer is yes, but not for love, not for beauty.

The fisherman Achille makes a journey back in time, back to Africa, where he sees the tragedy of the slave trade, but it is not clear whether this is a real or a dreamed journey.

The book shifts about quite a bit and needs close reading to keep track of its shifts - Major Plunkett, an old soldier living on the island with his wife, muses on his past, and old wars in Europe make an appearance, along with London and the peaceful Irish spot of Glen da Lough (whose significance I did not quite follow).

In the end it returns to St Lucia and the hordes of tourists that crowd its villages and beaches, gaping at the local colour and capturing everyday life in photos as "picturesque".

I enjoyed the book but I do feel that the modern reader is unused to the genre of epic poetry, which leaves one somewhat unsure of how best to read it.

Derek Walcott was born in Saint Lucia in 1930 and was awarded the Queen's Medal for Poetry in 1988.He lived in St Lucia and Boston, and died in 2017. He was also an accomplished painter - the cover images of this book were painted by the author. Omeros was published in 1990 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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