by Janet Bruesselbach
originally for RISD English class Epic taught by Mark Sherman
Before our topical discussion begins, I present an explanatory manifesto. Accept that no discussion of a text can more express its meaning than the text itself. Therefore, critical writing, confronted with poetry, should aim toward poetry's beauty and originality, as Barthes is wont to imply. We can also temporarily intend writing to be honest, that is, indicate that it is writing. Every word is a kind of metaphor, but by applying different words to the same idea one can indicate its reality. In a scalar comparison, Walcott aims to mix metaphors toward describing both a reality outside history and the meaning of that history, and ultimately his only arguments are several major metaphors. The arbitrariness of sign balances with the appropriateness of similarity, and to find a metaphor with the scope of epic reaches toward the realm of scientific law, which simultaneously offers contrast and convergence in the manner of thinking that synthesizes theoretical arguments.
Having chosen to declare Derek Walcott's Omeros an epic poem means exposing it to a universe of comparison with a verse form defined by its extensive and involved history. Walcott manipulates the legacy of epic to embrace history's emissions, thereby engaging what may be either a postcolonial epoch or a turning of epochs. Epic and Epoch, an anthology focusing more on Early Modern epics, supposes that "the epic at its best...places itself on the border of epochs."(Kelly 21) Isolating the turning of an epoch is one of the problems of history, as it assumes limits that are comparatively nebulous compared to the postulates of this essay's epic simile, our cosmological dark epoch. This fragment of a concept has been chosen because of the treatment we intend to give Omeros by reading it with all the epic classics.
The dark epoch is the best fiction that cosmologists can propose, having applied a principle of universal physical law and run distantly approximate observations through mixed equations. It's found that in order for the energy we measure from background radiation to match the mass we observe, we must be unable to observe about nine tenths of the energy in the universe, termed "dark matter". Cosmological history can be measured in both space and time: from the present backwards equal to distance, and from the large to the small, because once the universe is assumed to expand (as entropy indicates it must) we know that both its density and its heat must increase moving backwards in time, and the greater the temperature and energy, the smaller are the particles that can wander, and the stronger the universal forces attracting them. The universe acts as a perfect "black body", that is, an object with a distinctive radiation curve that neither absorbs nor reflects light. We'll find that these ideas can connect to Walcott's calculated hybrids of metaphor as well as his story (a wandering poet, a battle of fishermen, the evolution of history) can audit the European poetic canon. Taking an example from the limitations of cosmology and the barber's mirror of the poet's childhood, the journey that follows will read Omeros backwards.
What happens when one reads the epic form backwards? It depends on what the epic genre is. The introduction to Epic and Epoch supports our tendency to create a cosmological epic of universal history: "The epic becomes an imitation of the Creation... Epicists... will circulate the notion of the epic as a scientific and behavioral microcosm."(Kelly 12) Supposing we read Homer's Odyssey backwards, our epic hero loses his wife to suitors, loses his son, conceals himself and becomes an old beggar, leaves home, prophesises a series of nearly interchangeable adventures (following which a curse can be lifted) amongst foreign hosts, is abandoned on the ocean and left to drift until he finds himself on an island with Calypso, and, after this point, the Odyssey is completely reversible. Ultimately, of course, Odysseus gains ship and crew and goes to war. We could say that this story is a novel construction. Yet it seems that the structure is a movement between two homogenous states. It takes only the supposition of influence within the poem (like dark matter) to imply a return to a concentrated state.
"When he left the beach the sea was still going on", ends Omeros. This is a final descriptive nod towards the absurdity of human epoch and human division and a reference to an earlier passage in which the sea, as the ubiquitous medium of odyssey, transcends history in its reality of unchanging change, or as Walcott puts it, "water...commemorates nothing in its stasis."(297) and is "an epic where every line is erased." (296) In his self-referentiality, the poet is alluding to the deconstructionist concept of erasure, in which the negation of a sign describes that sign, and is therefore revealing, by naming the ocean an epic without signs, his aim at compromizing between verbality and the favoring of anti-colonial negation. Ramazani, in his chapter on Omeros, maintains "Like Philoctete's wound, this language carries its cure,/its radiant affliction"(323) as Walcott's thesis. It seems to be a simile whose idea is echoed repeatedly throughout the poem. "The wound in Omeros memorializes the untold suffering of Afro-Caribbeans, yet as trope, it inevitably poeticizes pain, compares this particular experience with others, and thus must either mar or deconstruct experiential uniqueness by plunging it into the whirlpool of metaphorical resemblence and difference." (Ramazani 71). Walcott, frustrated by a love of the colonizer's language and the density of allusive meaning in its most beautiful epic use, manipulates the simultaneous Godelian self-referentiality and simulatory magic of signs to synthesize the suffering of all colonial and postcolonial history's bearers, and reinstate the primacy of sensual reality whose beauty his poetry echoes as the essential metaphor. Through the medium of language, mixed metaphors can converge and expand the meaning of a narrative symbol such as Philoctete's wound and unite it with the flower that cures it, and temporally equate suffering with relief. The memory of colonial displacement, shared through writing, relieves the exclusivity of expository historical fact.
Thus the wound trope, although also unique to Philoctete, is like the asymmetry of the universe that allows matter, life, intelligence, and observation to occur. Ferris cites Robert Frost, certainly a voice within the colonizer's world, that "all metaphors are imperfect: that is the beauty of them." and comments "The universe is comprehensible because it is defective." Walcott expresses this with a Homeric meta-metaphor: "names are not oars//that have to be laid side by side, nor are legends"(313) Allusion to the Iliad within Omeros is all the more effective because no retelling or representation, no crisscrossed simile parallel as the physical concept from whence the metaphor that is "parallel" derives.
"When would I enter that light beyond metaphor?" (271) Walcott rhetorically questions his "phantom hearer", as he calls the dark-matter army of readers. Light first reads, here, as a metaphor, but for what? It cannot even slightly parallel our cosmological mysticism, despite the overlapping semantics with which "light" operates, through a guilt-laden history of linguistic evolution echoed in every epic since the blind man's. If light's almost structureless trope is the connection between words and imagery, the "transparant page" of "What I had read and rewritten till literature was as guilty as history"(271) can be the invisible energy of a history of language serving and creating its political context. Although Walcott's weariness with his own semantic density here relies on a genre distinction between history and literature, the two may suffer a qualitative difference such that history can enclose literature differently than literature, especially epic poetry, can enclose history. Walcott sees the enclosure of history enclosing literature in his literature as a somehow unbearable confusion of texts, and scales, and a Geryonic imposition of historical exclusivity. "Since poetry mediates experience through a language of exceptional figural and formal density, it is a less transparent medium by which to recuperate the history, politics, and sociology of postcolonial societies..."(Ramazani 4) Thus poetry shares some qualities with a smaller, earlier universe, not yet become invisible to transmetaphorical light. The energy and density of poetry allows it to eschew the transparency of explicit histories' invisible influence and converge differences between particulate signs.
Omeros's hybrid metaphors function by combining language usually used at different levels of discussion, so that the ghosts of multiple discourses might combine towards a shared vision. Walcott nevertheless fears the vastness of both the history and future of his poem, that which is remembered by shades in hell. In The Thief of Time, Terry Pratchett writes, "nine tenths of the world is paperwork." This paper is a member of the unseen space in which Walcott predicts the de-historicization of an anti-historical text. When the poet claims all history does is "take the thorn from Thoreau", he recognizes the materialist primacy of history and the inevitability that any polemically anti-colonial matter in his poem will be ultimately deferred by a changing political climate. "Walcott offers himself as the singer of a reality which is collocated--which is not to be taken to mean "justified"--within History, going beyond that often perverse and sterile dialectics with which many authors anchor themselves to the drama of colonizer and colonized." (Zoppi 528) Walcott settles the world's variety of approaches to the English language on the depopulated post-Joycean island of epic poetry, thereby, in accidental optimism, combining the two effects of poetic form: "Verse calls attention to one voice's way of saying the world and necessarily acts as a counterpoint to other uses of the same language. Either it is a hopeful mimetic of a way of representing a language or it startles against the conventions of common usage."(Phillips 115) The verse reinvigourates its orality by vernacular and classical quotation.
Another method of mixing metaphors is to allude via multiple metonymic subjects toward a particularly nebulous, sometimes non-sensual concept. Perhaps the passage most intense with nounal verbiage, reminiscient of Ulysses's, is that following Maud's death, in which all the Plunketts' possessions allude to the history of colonialism and more specifically the relation of Englad and Ireland. "In that khaki Ulysses" (An oft-used term for Plunkett) "there was a changing shadow of Telemachus/ in me, in his absent war. And an empire's guilt/stitched into one pattern of Maud's fabulous quilt."(263) The "changing shadow" alludes to the dark energy-like shadow (a virtual outlined echo) trope. "Telemachus", of course, means "absent war", and indicates Plunkett's never-born son as well as Joyce's alter-ego and conquering son figure, Stephen Dedalus. This telos/ending to a canto emphasizes its importance and pattern by emphasizing rhyme. Walcott's verse uses subtle rhyming throughout, not enslaved to a particular scheme but often echoing Dante. Thus in this passage Walcott indicates that his epic, along with much literature, could be not arbitrarily mapped to the Odyssey as well as the Iliad, with Plunkett acting as the postcolonial impotent patriarch (former sergeant major) to a sonlike poet. Patriacrchal power, if projected as polemical to the virtue of the oppressed, only becomes a shade with ten times the influence and no genuine observation, like hypothetical dark matter, like the unchanging shades in Dante's hell who can see all history but the present. And Maud's quilt connects her to Penelope, its repeating pattern to the textual weaving of lines in a poem, words to the history of epic.
The hybrid subject appears, also, within a less fragmented syntax in a self-analysis as baroque as its referents and piled like a "wedding cake republic"(207), ultimately quoting the "cold noise" of "fountains" "repeating that power and art were the same"(205) This is the fear that Walcott expressed earlier when his reading and rereading caused literature to be as guilty as history. After all, epics such as Virgil's are as responsible for the imperialist bias of Roman history as its historical texts. Walcott presumes that even in "The World's Classics" there is an intrinsic backwards reading in each repetition of epic format, and attempts to borrow the loser-written history of Dante, the devil's advocation of Milton and the exile's poetry of Joyce. Yet when the "opposite" of a "re-entered" "reversible world"(207) is a nonexistent physical perfection of static water and the "bird in the statue's hair"(206) always preferable to art, the art is the least powerful fraction of itself. This canto references the first in-depth intrusion of the first-person poet into his self-deconstructing, or "reversible world", whose reflection bears the same linearity and self-containedness as its left to right march. Here, at the conclusion of its own backwards trace of literary location (to Anatolia, even, though this is a journey priveleging space over time), Omeros refers to art history as a "cosmic midden"(205), the remnants and echoes of texts understood in too many ways different from the appropriateness to their time. Even anti-artistic art is art, and tracing an epic backwards is an epic.
Racial politics are inevitably connected to light/dark metaphorical dichotomies, but Walcott manages to treat this linguo-historical burden with some irony: "Lawd, Lawd, Massa Melville, what could a nigger do/but go down dem steps in the dusk like you describe?"(184) parodically quips Walcott in response to "The Whiteness of the Whale", a heavily context-referential section of New England's epic. Several cantos earlier, Walcott breaks his Dantean verse to parody Poe. Epic verse typically uses the effects of sound and the trope of light, and in a way, experiencing the verse through writing is an inversion that places the blind Homer's light-signed words as black matter on a page. Walcott has historically refused to simply favor darkness, as he quite desires "the light beyond metaphor", which is quite beyond the racial implications Melville and other colonial-era voices imposed on it.
Of surviving the Middle Passage, Walcott writes, "there is the epical splendour."(149) Racial memory, we know, is as virtual as meaning, a method of creating abstract guilt as much as gods in Classical epic relieve it from an empire. Achille's dream of Africa becomes the same kind of experience as the democratically (considering the slave-based origins of democracy in Athens) integrating poetry provides to Achille's, Hector's and Helen's story, and to the poet's himself. There is no such thing as perfect similitude ("one spear only. An oar."(147) ) Even in a pattern or a rhythm, it is temporal and spatial difference that defines similarity, so that Omeros's description of African drumming contradicts its own semantics: "The same, the same." (143)
It has been said that gods and fairies are as good an explanation for the inexplicable in the universe as dark matter and expansion epochs. Achille's encounter with God takes him through time and an ancestral journey the way our present includes the past of everything we observe. In the catabasis's introductory passage, Walcott begins to reference Heart of Darkness, and via the allusion to film, Apocalypse Now. "The endless river unreeled//those images that flickered into real mirages."(133) The imagery invoked by language is also a "real mirage", and if we can temporarily accept the effects of dark matter, we can appreciate the vaster effect verbal mirages have on our sense of reality than the impossible objective observation.
At the same time, we can see a trope of Walcott's (like on of Joyce's) imposing its symbolism on our mental picture without seeing the reference. Take the "sea swift", that semantically begins as a fish but seems to morph to bird, heavily laden with In God We Troust, the epically significant language of Aurora, and universal theories: "her speed outdarted memory"(131)..."she circled epochs with her outstretched span;/she gave a straight answer when one was required"(131) and "this engine/that shot ahead of each question like an answer"(130) By mixing metaphors, this Hemingway-like fish becomes the instance of thought, viewing the past of all around it as relativity demands. And with that transecendence, Achille faints into the indefinite, dark presence of the subconscious. "Time is the metre, memory the only plot"(129) of Walcott's phantom muse of truth.
Approaching the beginning, we see how Achille is intended as Walcott's anti-historical icon. A telling transition occurs in Book II between Achille "studying a heaven whose cosmology had been erased/ by the crossing"(113) and Dennis Walcott, who "counted the stars...they were the usual wonder"(113) (that the night sky is dark disproves an infinite universe, but even vastness easily becomes mundane) contemplating his own history, in which he "won the prize for an essay/on the Roman Empire. In those days," (either his youth or the Roman epoch) "history was easy."(113) That each name in this poem is woven into a vast surmise of meaning can only strengthen its beauty, because within the conflict of allusions lies a the modern epoch's awareness of language's futility, and generating that law is the postmodern awareness of "so what?" that finds a reality in facsimile as powerful, and dangerous, in effect as any Aeneic or Iliadic slaughter. (Phillips 115)"Is this chance/or an echo?"(100) polarizes Plunkett, revisioning history for Helen. An arbitrary connection has been made as genuine by Walcott's modernist cyclops as the impossible true connection, so why not posit the unseen in a dimly viewed history by its effects, rather than presuming that our bias towards light determines what exists and does not? Why not, on the other hand, accept the variability of law? Weren't particles themselves more dense in the distance, or constants inconstant? Why can't multiple solutions to the unknown mix like interdisciplinary metaphors?
I grew up where alleys ended in a harbour
and Infinity wasn't the name of our street;
where the town anarchist was the corner barber
With his own flagpole and revolving speaker's seat.
There were rusted mirrors in which we would look back
On the world's events. There, toga'd in a pinned sheet,
The curled hairs fell like commas. On the varnished rack,
The World's Great Classics read backwards in his mirrors...
Though epic history
remains dense at the beginning of this finite poem, we choose to end with this
allusive description, part allegory and part memory. The very concept
of a street named infinity, like the concept of anything named infity, can only
be invoked by a reversal: imagining St. Lucia's roads that were emphatically
limited by the ocean. And here, another contrary political opinion is
absolutely conventional. When reversal is a convention, which history
has made it, it is consummate with its reflection, which itself becomes a myth
in the typical Derridian Taoism. Direction can, on an unnecessarily abstract
scale, be negligible. The "rusted mirrors" imply the decrepitude, the
presence of anti-matter in the furthest reaches of history, whose mysteriously
asymmetrical cancellation into energy has left a vast unseen force throughout
spatial history. The "toga'd" is an almost stereotypical juxtaposition
of classicism with anti-imperialism, while with "commas" the poet reimposes
the written presence of his words, and their medium affinity to "The World's
Great Classics" which is read backwards in already conventionalized
reflection like what might no longer, even with compromise, become a canonical
entrance to our dark epoch.
Ferris, Timothy. Coming of Age in the Milky Way. New Millenium Audio, 2000.
Kelly, Van; Oberhelman, Steven M.; Richard J Golsan. Epic and Epoch:Essays on the interpretation and history of a genre. Lubbock: Texas Tech press, 1994.
Phillips, Rowan Ricardo. "Derek Walcott: Imagination, Nation, and the Poetics of Memory". Small Axe 6.1 (2002) p. 112-132.
Ramazani, Jahan. The Hybrid Muse: Postcolonial Poetry In English. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Williams, Ted. "Truth and Representation: The confrontation of History and Mythology in Omeros". Callaloo 24.1 (2001) p. 276-286.
Zoppi, Isabella Maria. "Omeros, Derek Walcott, and the Contemporary Epic Poem". Callaloo 22.2 (1999) 509-528