Academic journal article ARIEL

"Nothing in That Other Kingdom": Fashioning a Return to Africa in Omeros

Academic journal article ARIEL

"Nothing in That Other Kingdom": Fashioning a Return to Africa in Omeros

Article excerpt

Abstract: What are we to make of Achilles imaginary return to Africa in Derek Walcott's Omeros? Is it a rejection of Walcott's earlier theme of postcolonial nostalgia for lost origins? Does it lead to a different conception of postcolonial identity away from notions of new world hybridity and heterogeneity that Walcott had espoused earlier, or is it a complex figuring of racial identity for the Afro-Caribbean subject? My essay answers these questions through a reading of the specific intertextual moments in the poem's return to Africa passage. The presence of allusions and textual fragments from Virgil's Aeneid, Homer's Odyssey, and James Joyce's Ulysses in this particular passage of Omeros (Book 3) has not received much critical attention so far. Through the use of these modular texts, I argue that Omeros not only transforms the postcolonial genre of a curative return to origins and fashions a distinctive literary landscape but also imagines a postcolonial subjectivity that negotiates the polarity between origins and the absence of origins or a fragmented new world identity.

Keywords: Derek Walcott; Omeros; intertextuality; postcolonial adaptation; epic canon; paternity

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Derek Walcott's Omeros (1990) is an epic of Caribbean life in Saint Lucia and a retelling of the trans-Atlantic histories of descendants of slaves. Omeros' self-referentiality as epic is signaled by its many adaptations of Homeric proper names, plot, and themes to structure a comparison between Aegean narratives of the Iliad and the Odyssey and black diasporic experiences in the West Indies. Yet as critics have repeatedly noted, Walcott's poem veers away from affirming parallels between squabbling Caribbean fishermen travelling among islands in their canoes and Homer's epics, voicing a desire for an epic of life in Saint Lucia without the "vanity" (Walcott, "Reflections on Omeros" 233) of the Homeric veil. While this tension between metaphor and reality has been extensively explored by critics, there remains an understudied conflict in Omeros, i.e., the poem's ambivalence as to where to locate the primary components of the identity of the "tribe" of which it sings: in the West Indies that is inhabited by the children of slaves or in an ancestral Africa where the traumatic event of the Middle Passage originated. The imagined voyage to Africa that occurs in the middle of the book is a powerful reminder of slavery and enforced separation from an original homeland, but it is also a representation of a lost home evoked in terms of Western epic tradition. How do we interpret this mediated portrayal of Africa? Does the poem succeed in resolving the tension between the present Caribbean island home and the quest for lost origins in Africa? (1) In this essay, I intend to expand what has been regarded as definitional for the poetics of Euro-modernist adaptation by exploring a very different nature of contact with epic models in Omeros. (2)

Caribbean characters with Greek names such as Achille, Hector, Philoctete, and the beautiful Helen, who is also identified with the island of Saint Lucia, populate Omeros multicultural universe. The poem's title itself is a Greek or archipelagic version of Homers name, which the poet scans in terms of Antillean patois and the crash of the "white surf": "O was the conch-shell's invocation, mer was / both mother and sea in our Antillean patois" (14). The Saint Lucian blind prophet Seven Seas is depicted as a counterpart of Homer ("Old St. Omere"), and the self-exiled English Major Plunkett and his Irish wife Maud are united in their exotic hope that the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia might "renew the Mediterranean's innocence" (28).

Book 3 of Omeros, which describes Achilles journey to Africa in a sunstroke-induced dream, is a multilayered textual tapestry in which several sources collectively influence Achilles symbolic repatriation to Africa. Achilles flight to Africa and his meeting with the shade of Afolabe, his African ancestor, have been usually read in a formalist light of a self-contained textual system either signifying a therapeutic foray in genealogy and restoration of Achilles African lineage or an anti-rhetorical destabilization of the notion of origins. …

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