Black Homer

THERE'S a direct ratio between precision and complexity on the one hand and bold outline on the other. Remember: The Renaissance masters sketched bold cartoons before adding shading and color. It works in poetry, too. Derek Walcott's new book-length poem, ``Omeros,'' illustrates how. The bold outline comes from literature and history. To tell his African-American tale (the place is the West Indies, where he grew up), playwright-poet Walcott has borrowed from Omeros (Homer in modern Greek).

Like Joyce's Dublin, Walcott's Saint Lucia comes alive with names out of Homer - Helen, Achille, Hector. Through their voices the details jump with life - small-boat fishing, deep-sea diving, hurricanes, lots of rain, coal mining, the gumbo mixture of French, British, and African cultures.

If the plot draws on Homer and history, the frame of the language, the bold outline on each page, comes from Dante. Those tidy groups of three lines are jammed with rhymes and puns and every sort of word play. Turbulent as the ocean (which may be the most just comparison), Walcott's verses domesticate traditions of all sorts and sing their own songs.

At a deeper level, Walcott works by analogy. He starts by comparing the history of his black people to Homer's Greeks, and himself to Homer, and ends by comparing the poetic craft to realms of nature. ``Time is the meter, memory the only plot.''

Of the ocean, he writes: ``It never altered its meter to suit the age, a wide page without metaphors. / Our last resort as much as yours, Omeros.''

Like Homer, Walcott writes not pure fiction but ``history.'' There's a big difference: ``All that Greek manure under the green bananas, / under the indigo hills, the rain-rutted road, / the galvanized village, the myth of rustic manners, / glazed by the transparent page of what I had read. / What I had read and rewritten till literature / was guilty as History.'' It takes its toll.

Walcott asks, almost praying: ``When would it stop, / the echo in the throat, insisting, `Omeros'; / when would I enter the light beyond metaphor?'' Achille returns to Africa, looking for his father. Walcott's own quest, his own wandering, occupies the middle of the book. His Homeric poem had turned his black Helen - ``Her beauty stands apart / in a golden dress, its beaches wreathed with her name'' - into a symbol, the island itself.

The battle between Achille and Hector that frames the book is over Helen. The author's white counterpart, a retired British officer named Plunkett, quiets his passion for Helen, whom he and his wife Maud had employed as a maid until she stole that yellow dress, by writing the colonial history of the island. ``Omeros'' includes superb naval battles that Barbara Tuchman would have envied!

But in the middle of the book, a contemporary Helen appears. She brings the author into contact with the lost tribes of America - the Dakotas, the Sioux, the Crows. As Catherine Weldon helps him put his losses into perspective, she rises like a goddess, ``in high relief / through the thin page of cloud, making a fiction / of my own loss.'' A lovely lyric in couplets memorializes her loss, too.

A visit to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts prompts reflections: ``Art has surrendered / to History with its whiff of formaldehyde.'' The author sees Achille in that other Homer (Winslow) and his painting, ``The Gulf Stream'': ``My main man, my nigger! / circled by chain-sawing sharks; the ropes of his neck / turned towards Africa...''

Does Walcott, l'homme noir sensuel, make his Helens too poignantly visual, too objective? Some have thought so. Catherine Weldon's name remains a mystery. ``Art is history's nostalgia,'' says the author in his own defense. It is art, not history, that triumphs. Or not exactly art. The only way the poem as a whole comes ``in high relief'' is in light of another light. ``God's light.''

In a rapturous passage that completes the metaphysical architecture of the poem, Walcott sees History melt, and beneath it ``a patient, hybrid organism / grows in his cruciform shadow.''

But then, ``God's light ripples over them as it does the Troumasse / River in the morning, as it does over me, when / the palm-wheel threshes its spokes, and my ecstasy / of privilege lifts me with the man-o'-war's wing / in that fear of happiness I have never shed, / pierced by the lance of sunlight flung over the sea.''

``Omeros'' not only challenges, it repays comparisons with the ``Great Dead'' - with Homer, Dante, and Joyce. It puts Derek Walcott where he belongs, with the greatest poets now writing in English.

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