Some time in the last two years, I decided to undertake a reading of epics (The Odyssey), verse novels (Omeros and Prophets, by Derek Walcott and Kwame Dawes, respectively). I called myself doing research for my own verse novel. Well. I got about more than half way through The Odyssey before I gave up the ghost. I barely made it past the first chapter of Omeros, although, truth be told, that was due to me being so enraptured by the language of that first chapter, that I just stopped in awe. And that is where I am at with that book. Transfixed. Earlier this month, I picked up Prophets and started reading it again. I admit to being fascinated…by the story, by the language AND by the three-line format.

Here is the back blurb:

From the winner of the 1994 Forward Poetry Prize for the best first collection comes this major new narrative poem.

Drawing on inspirations as diverse as Derek Walcott, the Bible and Peter Tosh, Dawes brings a live a world where 24-hour satellite television, belching out the swaggering voices of American hellfire preachers, competes with dance hall, ‘slackness’ and ganja for the Jamaican mind. Against this background, Clarice and Talbot preach their own conflicting visions.

Clarice has used her gifts of prophecy to raise herself from the ghetto. Thalbot has fallen from relative security onto the streets. Whilst Clarice has her blue-eyed Jesus, Thalbot brandishes his blackness in the face of every passer-by. Clarice’s visions give her power. Thalbot is at the mercy of possession by every wandering spirit. But when, under the cover of darkness, Clarice ‘sins’ with one of her followers, Thalbot alone knows of her fall. From the heart of the Jamaican countryside he sets  out to denounce the prophetess and, like Jonah, to warn the Ninevite city of its coming doom. An epic struggle begins.

Now. Narrative poem. That may be a better, more poetic term than verse novel. Verse novel sounds so plain and well, teenage-ish; at least to my ears. So the next conceptual step on my journey to completing my own narrative poem is to call it that. As I tell my son, words have power/words matter.

The three-line format of both Omeros and Prophets is fascinating. It is a definite plus in reading poems which possess an extended narrative nature. Why that is the case, I haven’t yet figured out.  I started out trying to mimic that format for my own work. However, the characters rebelled. They didn’t want line cohesion. They just wanted to tell their stories in their own ragged and mismatched lines (aka free verse). Even though I am the author, I got out of their way.  After all, I want the narrative written,  not blocked because of an allegiance to a format that, however fascinating, doesn’t work for this particular narrative.

Then after Eden,
was there one surprise?
O yes, the awe of Adam
at the first bead of sweat.

Thenceforth, all flesh
had to be sown with salt,
to feel the edge of seasons,
fear and harvest
joy that was difficult,
but was, at least, his own.

The snake? It would not trust
on its forked tree.
The snake admired Labour,
it would not leave him alone.

And both would watch the leaves
silver the alder,
oaks yellowing October,
everything turning money.

So when Adam was exiled
to our new Eden, in the ark’s gut,
the coined snake coiled there for good
fellowship also; that was willed.

Adam had an idea.
He and the snake would share
the loss of Eden for a profit.
So both made the New World. And it looked good.

Excerpted from Derek Walcott: Collected Poems 1948-1984

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Then after Eden,
was there one surprise?
O yes, the awe of Adam
at the first bead of sweat.

Thenceforth, all flesh
had to be sown with salt,
to feel the edge of seasons,
fear and harvest
joy that was difficult,
but was, at least, his own.

The snake? It would not trust
on its forked tree.
The snake admired Labour,
it would not leave him alone.

And both would watch the leaves
silver the alder,
oaks yellowing October,
everything turning money.

So when Adam was exiled
to our new Eden, in the ark’s gut,
the coined snake coiled there for good
fellowship also; that was willed.

Adam had an idea.
He and the snake would share
the loss of Eden for a profit.
So both made the New World. And it looked good.

 

Excerpted from Derek Walcott: Collected Poems 1948-1984

 

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.

First, there was the heaving oil,
heavy as chaos;
then, likea light at the end of a tunnel,

the lantern of a caravel,
and that was Genesis.
Then there were the packed cries,
the shit, the moaning:

Exodus.
Bone soldered by coral to bone,
mosaics
mantled by the benediction of the shark’s shadow,

that was the Ark of the Covenant.
Then came from the plucked wires
of sunlight on the sea floor

the plangent harp of the Babylonian bondage,
as the white cowries clustered like manacles
on the drowned women,

and those were the ivory bracelets
of the Song of Solomon,
but the ocean kept turning blank pages

looking for History.
Then came the men with eyes heavy as anchors
who sank without tombs,

brigands who barbecued cattle,
leaving their charred ribs like palm leaves on the shore,
then the foaming, rabid maw

of the tidal wave swallowing Port Royal,
and that was Jonah,
but where is your Renaissance?

Sir, it is locked in them sea sands
out there past the reef’s moiling shelf,
where the men-o’-war floated down;

strop on these goggles, I’ll guide you there myself.
It’s all subtle and submarine,
through colonnades of coral,

past the gothic windows of sea fans
to where the crusty grouper, onyx-eyed,
blinks, weighted by its jewels, like a bald queen;

and these groined caves with barnacles
pitted like stone
are our cathedrals,

and the furnace before the hurricanes:
Gomorrah. Bones ground by windmills
into marl and cornmeal,

and that was Lamentations –
that was just Lamentations,
it was not History;

then came, like scum on the river’s drying lip,
the brown reeds of villages
mantling and congealing into towns,

and at evening, the midges’ choirs,
and above them, the spires
lancing the side of God

as His son set, and that was the New Testament.

Then came the white sisters clapping
to the waves’ progress,
and that was Emancipation –

jubilation, O jubilation –
vanishing swiftly
as the sea’s lace dries in the sun,

but that was not History,
that was only faith,
and then each rock broke into its own nation;

then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote,

fireflies with bright ideas
and bats like jetting ambassadors
and the mantis, like khaki police,

and the furred caterpillars of judges
examining each case closely,
and then in the dark ears of ferns

and in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo

of History, really beginning.

 

Source

Deprived of their original language, the captured and indentured tribes create their own, accreting and secreting fragments of an old, an epic vocabulary, from Asia and from Africa, but to an ancestral, an ecstatic rhythm in the blood that cannot be subdued by slavery or indenture, while nouns are renamed and the given names of places accepted like Felicity village or Choisseul. The original language dissolves from the exhaustion of distance like fog trying to cross an ocean, but this process of renaming, of finding new metaphors, is the same process of renaming, of finding new metaphors, is the same process that the poet faces every morning of his working day, making his own tools like Crusoe, assembling nouns from necessity, from Felicity, even renaming himself. The stripped man is driven back to that self-astonishing, elemental force, his mind. That is the basis of the Antillean experience, this shipwreck of fragments, these echoes, these shards of a huge tribal vocabulary, these partially remembered customs, and they are not decayed but strong. They survived the Middle Passage and the Fatel Rozack, the ship that carried the first indentured Indians from the port of Madras to the cane fields of Felicity, that carried the chained Cromwellian convict and the Sephardic Jew, the Chinese grocer and the Lebanese merchant selling cloth samples on his bicycle.

And here they are, all in a single Caribbean city, Port of Spain, the sum of history, Trollope’s ‘non-people’. A downtown babel of shop signs and streets, mongrelized, polyglot, a ferment without a history, like heaven. Because that is what such a city is, in t he New World, a writer’s heaven.

 

Source

I am starting to work my slow way through Omeros. I stopped to google Omeros – Derek Walcott. I found the following link. It’s him reading a very brief excerpt and then taking questions from the audience. You will have to scroll through the list of names to find Walcott. They also have episodes with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nawal El Sadaawi, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Chinua Achebe, Khaled Hosseini and Gunter Grass.

BBC – Podcasts – World Book Club.

I’ve been flirting with this book on and off throughout the year. However, as the year nears its completion, I find the very first poem of the Nobel prize-winning book by Derek Walcott haunting me. Take a look.

Book 1: Chapter 1 – Section 1 (Excerpt)

"This is how, one sunrise, we cut down them canoes."
Philoctete smiles for the tourists, who try taking
his soul with their cameras. "Once wind bring the news

to the laurier-cannelles, their leaves start shaking
the minute the axe of sunlight hit the cedars,
they could see the axes in our own eyes.

Wind lift the ferns. They sound like the sea that feed us
fisherman all our life, and the ferns nodded ‘Yes,
the trees have to die.’ So, fists jam into our jacket,

cause the heights was cold and our breath making feathers
like the mist, we pass the rum. When it came back, it
give us the spirit to turn into murderers.

I lift up the axe and pray for strength in my hands
to wound the first cedar. Dew was filling my eyes,
but I fire one more white rum. The we advance."

For some extra silver, under a sea-almond,
he shows them a scar made by a rusted anchor,
rolling one trouser-leg up with the rising moan

of a conch. It has puckered like the corolla
of a sea-urchin. He does not explain its cure.
“It have some things" – he smiles – "worth more than a dollar."

He has left it to a garrulous waterfall
to pour out his secret down La Sorcière, since
the tall laurels fell, for the ground-dove’s mating call

to pass on its note to the blue, tacit mountains
whose talkative brooks, carrying it to the sea,
turn into idle pools where the clear minnows shoot

and an egret stalks the reeds with one rusted cry
as it stabs and stabs the mud with one lifting foot.
Then silence is sawn in half by a dragonfly

as eels sign their names along the clear bottom-sand,
when the sunrise brightens the river’s memory
and waves of huge ferns are nodding to the sea’s sound.

Although smoke forgets the earth from which it ascends
and nettles guard the holes where the laurels were killed,
an iguana hears the axes, clouding each lens

over its lost name, when the hunched island was called
"Iounalao," "Where the iguana is found."
But, taking its own time, the iguana will scale

the rigging of vines in a year, its dewlap fanned,
its elbows akimbo, its deliberate tail
moving with the island. The split pods of its eyes

ripened in a pause that lasted for centuries,
that rose with the Aruacs’ smoke till a new race
unknown to the lizard stood measuring the trees.

These were their pillars that fell, leaving a blue space
for a single God where the old gods stood before.
The first god was a gommier. The generator

began with a whine, and a shark, with sidewise jaw,
sent the chips flying like mackerel over water
into trembling weeds. Now they cut off the saw,

still hot and shaking, to examine the wound it
had made. They scraped off its gangrenous moss, then ripped
the wound clear of the net of vines that still bound it

to this earth, and nodded. The generator whipped
back to its work, and the chips flew much faster as
the shark’s teeth gnawed evenly. They covered their eyes

from the splintering nest. Now, over the pastures
of bananas, the island lifted its horns. Sunrise
trickled down its valleys, blood splashed on the cedars,

and the grove flooded with the light of sacrifice.
A gommier was cracking. Its leaves an enormous
tarpaulin with the ridgepole gone. The creaking sound

made the fishermen leap back as the angling mast
leant slowly towards the troughs of ferns; then the ground
shuddered under the feet in waves, then the waves passed.

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