Omeros (the Greek name for Homer) by Derek Walcott is a challenging, multi-layered epic poem in seven books. Although the poem does not retell Homer’s works, it does feature characters in the Iliad and Odyssey and is replete with references to Greek mythology. Several seemingly disparate narrative threads intersect in the poem. Weaving in and out of these different threads is the author’s reflections on his life and his commentary on the damaging effects of colonialism on the indigenous populations of the Caribbean, Africa, and North America.
The primary thread is set in the Caribbean island of St. Lucia and involves fishermen and other sundry characters populating the island—Achille, Hector, Helen, Philoctete, Seven Seas (a blind poet), Ma Kilman (the healer), and Major Plunkett and his wife Maud, among others. The characters sometimes merge with their Homeric counterparts. Within its seemingly haphazard framework, the poet leaps backward and forward in time, changes locations from the island to cities in Europe and North America, frequently interjects himself as a traveler in and out of time and place, and converses with Homer in the final section of the book. All these shifts occur without alerting the reader, so one frequently has to reread passages to determine the location, the timeframe, and the characters involved in any segment.
The poem is complex. It can be confusing at times to follow a narrative thread with its unannounced shifts that pull in any given direction. However, the narrative is not what necessarily draws in the reader. Instead, what draws the reader in and what makes this a spellbinding work of literature is the sheer beauty of the poetry in lines that have to be savored as they twirl around the tongue, lines that reflect the immense talent of the mind that produced them.
In Omeros, Derek Walcott, the 1992 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, gave us a poem with characters drawn with sympathy and compassion. He showed us their struggles, their triumphs, and their defeats. He transported us to their island, an island rich with color and vegetation and with the sights and sounds of the ocean as a constant presence. And he does this while illustrating the debilitating impact of colonialism on the traditions and culture of the indigenous population. Above all, Walcott gave us rhythmic lines of poetry in language that is musical, vibrant, resonant, stunningly beautiful, and replete with images and metaphors shimmering with color.
A challenging poem to read but well worth the effort. Highly recommended.