Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 733

>Omeros is about memory, history, and identity, and these issues are explored from both a personal and a global perspective. An intriguing aspect of Walcott’s art is his merging of elements of personal biography with global history. For example, the invalid mother whom the poem’s narrator visits refers to “Roddy” and “Pam” (Walcott’s siblings in real life) in speaking with him and calls him “Warwick’s son” (Warwick is the actual name of Walcott’s father). An important thread in the poem is the poet’s trying to solve a midlife crisis that is rooted both in living in an empty house and in experiencing writer’s block. Omeros celebrates the hard-won discovery of the subject best suited to the poet’s individual expression: his own island people of St. Lucia. The affirmation of parental and ancestral ties is connected with this personal and ethnic exploration. It is explored, for example, in the beginning of book 3, where Achille figuratively goes back to Africa and spends time with his father, Afolabe. Their anguished discussion of naming and identity resonates hauntingly with the experiences of black slaves enduring the Middle Passage. A slave was customarily renamed by his owner at the time of purchase.

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The narrator-poet tells readers that he has “stitched” wounds into his characters because “affliction is one theme/ of this work.” The biggest wound of all is the most obvious: a weeping, starfish-shaped sore on Philoctetes’s shin that he incurred from a rusty anchor and that he moans about throughout the entire poem. For a dollar he will display it to tourists so they can photograph it. In despair, he drinks himself into daily oblivion at the No Pain Cafe and tears out tender white yams from his own garden by the roots in frustration. Finally, blessedly, he is healed by a voodoo woman named Ma Kilman, owner of the No Pain Cafe, who bathes his leg with tincture of an elusive ill-smelling herb that she has gleaned in the forest, having followed a line of ants in her search. Significantly, the seed of the healing herb originated in Africa and was carried to St. Lucia in the beak of a sea-swift.

Bird imagery is very important in the poem: flight, crossings and criss-crossings, building bridges and connections between hemispheres, races, and generations. Maud Plunkett, who is homesick for Ireland, stitches an elaborate quilt that displays the rich variety of birds that inhabit St. Lucia, many of which have immigrated just as she has:

The African swallow, the finch from Indianow spoke the white language of a tea-sipping ternwith the Chinese nightingales on a shantung screen,while the Persian falcon, whose cry leaves a scaron the sky till it closes, saw the sand turn green,the dunes to sea, understudying the man-o’-war,talking the marine dialect of the Caribbeanwith nightjars, finches, and swallows, each originenriching the islands to which their cries were sewn.

Maud’s quilt, symbol of cultural diversity and harmony, becomes her shroud in death.

Cultural blending and melding is a central theme that infuses almost every aspect of Omeros . The simple Caribbean fishermen’s names connect them with Greek gods. Black Helen is as beautiful and desired as her Greek counterpart who ignited a war; the poem compares them—“one marble, one ebony”—and seems to prefer the one who is “here and alive.” Helen’s identity as a woman is also merged with the island of St. Lucia; Walcott finds connections in the entomology of their names: “the island was once/ named Helen.” Helen’s promiscuous vacillation between Hector and Achille is compared with the island’s having changed hands fourteen times between the French and the English before it gained its independence in 1979. The narrator-poet, of mixed racial heritage, seeks to re-enter his...

(The entire section contains 2007 words.)

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