I've been rereading Derek Walcott's Omeros, a Caribbean retelling (sort of) of Homer's Odyssey. I could keep reading it forever, always finding new aspects. Sometimes something incredibly complex like this work is what you want to read, something that you have to wrestle with and read again and again. At least, that's how I feel. (I wrote more about Omeros here.) After I share an extract from Walcott, I've got a poem I wrote using some of his words.
I picked this to share today because of the way I've been kept from travel the last 16 months or so. I'm "stuck" here on a Caribbean island, which is not at all the worst fate one could imagine. I miss the family members I can't go to see, especially my daughter, but there's so much that's beautiful here.
In this extract, Walcott (or the version of him in the poem) meets the ghost of his father (who died when Walcott was a child) on the cold beach in Boston. (You can see what I meant by calling this "a retelling (sort of)." There's a lot of other stuff in it as well.)
By the way, in the Odyssey, Odysseus goes to the underworld to meet the ghost of his mother, but he never goes to Boston to meet the ghost of his father.
Walcott is talking as the extract begins, telling his father's ghost that this place is too cold for them to talk. His father suggests a warmer place, and then talks about his travels around the world, and how he ended up coming back to his island and loving it.
I said, "This is hardly the place; maybe I called
but it's too cold for talk; this happens to old men,
and I'm nearly there. You could have been my child,
and the more I live, the more our ages widen."
"We could go to a warmer place." My father smiled.
"Oh, not where you think, an island close to Eden.
But before you return, you must enter cities
that open like The World's Classics, in which I dreamt
I saw my shadow on their flagstones, histories
that carried me over the bridge of self-contempt,
though I never stared in their rivers, great abbeys
soaring in net-webbed stone, when I felt diminished
even by a postcard. Those things I wrote to please
your mother and our friends, unrevised, unfinished,
in drawing-room concerts died in their own applause.
Way back in the days of the barber's winding sheet,
I longed for those streets that History had made great,
but the island became my fortress and retreat,
in that circle of friends that I could dominate.
Dominate, Dominus. With His privilege,
I felt like the "I" that looks down on an island,
the way that a crested palm looks down from its ridge
on a harbour warmer than this one, or my hand.
But there is pride in cities, so remember this:
Once you have seen everything and gone everywhere,
cherish our island for its green simplicities,
enthrone yourself, if your sheet is a barber-chair,
a sail leaving harbour and a sail coming in,
the shadows of grape-leaves on sunlit verandahs
made me content. The sea-swift vanishes in rain,
and yet in its travelling all that the sea-swift does
it does in a circular pattern. Remember that, son."
The surf was dark. The lights stuttered in the windows
along the empty beach, red and green lights tossed on
the cold harbour, and beyond them, like dominoes
with lights for holes, the black skyscrapers of Boston.
Derek Walcott, from Omeros, Chapter XXXVI
I took a quote from this passage and wrote a golden shovel poem:
Sometimes you don't know what you cherish
Until you can't have it any more - our
Affectionate kiss of greeting on this island
Is gone for now; for
Now we stay apart as contagion spreads its
Dangers. But rain falls gently, the world is green,
We hold our families, fall back on simplicities.
Ruth, from thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com