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Faces in a Broken Mirror : OMEROS, By Derek Walcott . (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $25; 325 pp.)

January 20, 1991|Nick Owchar | Owchar is an English teacher at Bishop Amat High School and a member of the Book Review staff

The West Indies is a rich soil for poetry. Some would attribute this, as Lord Byron did, to the fact that in places where the weather is tropical and clothes are worn loosely if at all, there's a special vitality that finds its way into the language. This is certainly true of the West Indies' prominent voice today, the poet Derek Walcott, though it really doesn't explain why Walcott has achieved his standing in 20th-Century literature.

While Walcott's poems are suffused with pretty island imagery and a blend of Yankee, African and French patois, he has not made a career out of reproducing the scenery for tourists. Walcott's artistic life has been engrossed in the West Indian struggle for personal and cultural identity.

Colonialism and empire-building garner some responsibility for the unique circumstances found in the West Indies. Some islands have changed hands so often that today it is not unusual to find the native populace of an English island living in a Dutch village, speaking French and listening to Spanish music.

In Walcott's works we are shown how this variety that has been the centerpiece of West Indian culture also is its curse. Answering the question "What does it mean to be West Indian?" is like trying to consider one's reflection in the numerous, broken pieces of a mirror. The African heritage of many West Indians adds to their sense of "otherness," the sense that another culture is a part of them but that it is removed, far away in the haze of history.

In Walcott's new work, "Omeros" (the modern Greek for Homer), the struggle for identity adds new dimensions with its allusions to Greek epic poetry. It is no surprise that a poet so concerned with the question of identity should be attracted to the wanderings of Odysseus described in the "Odyssey." "Omeros" is about quests. Odysseus' grief and isolation from his home, 19 years after the Trojan War ended, is evoked by many of the characters.

The story begins, as does the "Iliad," with war for a girl named Helen. She is a West Indian housemaid, and the rivalry she stirs is not between kings but between two humble fishermen, appropriately known as Hector and Achille.

Suffering for his love of Helen, Achille (pronounced ah-SHEEL) broods among the fishermen's canoes as the Achilles of the "Iliad" broods when his concubine is taken by Agamemnon--only Achille's anger in "Omeros" is not just for Helen but also for the island he sees being taken over by commercialism. On a Friday evening as the village prepares for a big party, Achille turns his back on the corruption he senses is settling into place. He escapes in his boat to the ocean where he has an unexpected vision of his African identity.

As in many of Walcott's works, revelation comes in the form of a dream. Adrift at sea, out of sight of the land, Achille dreams of Africa. As Odysseus is reunited with his son in the "Odyssey," Achille meets his ancestral past in the father he never knew:

...his hair was surf Curling round a sea-rock,

the forehead a frowning river, As they swirled in the estuary

of a bewildered love, and Time stood between them.

Culture and heritage are transformed into a powerful, life-giving figure in Achille's dream, translated by Walcott into primal images of the ocean.

While Achille pursues his ancestral roots, another identity crisis is endured by Dennis Plunkett, whose former service as a British officer is a stigma he carries to the islands. Though he and his wife have made the island their home, they are unable to escape the legacy of British Imperialism in the West Indies. Plunkett suffers from historical guilt. He thinks the natives glare at him with the same contempt they have for tourists. It is impossible just to join them relaxing under the eaves of a house because "their view of him would always remain/One of patronage." The shadow of Empire continually frustrates his chances for brotherhood.

Walcott's insight into Achille and Plunkett, the native and the outsider, is due to the unique vantage point he possesses. With Walcott descended of a white grandfather and a black grandmother on his paternal and maternal sides, the division he witnesses in his West Indian society is in himself. Critics often refer to his background with the term "cultural schizophrenia." Walcott's sense of "otherness" has left him, as he says in his early poem "A Far Cry From Africa," "divided in the vein." His characters often reflect his own attempts to reconcile the polarized worlds that are part of him.

While Achille and Plunkett, among other colorful characters, occupy our attention for half of the book, it is Walcott himself who commands the remainder. In a startling transition, the poet directly enters the story to continue the narrative.

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