- Allusions in Omeros: Notes and a Guide to Derek Walcott’s Masterpiece by Maria McGarrity
Since its publication in 1990, Derek Walcott’s Omeros has come to stand as a monumental work in postcolonial studies and global Anglophone literature. Particularly after the Swedish Academy named Walcott a Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1992, there has been an outpouring of writing on the poem, whether in reviews, journal articles, or book-length studies. For those of us who teach in higher education, Omeros often occupies a seminal place on our syllabi, from sweeping surveys of world literature to specialized graduate seminars on globalization and postcolonial poetry. Still, Walcott’s epic of the Caribbean poses significant challenges: the poem’s dense allusiveness, its interweaving of disparate geographies and histories spanning Old World and New, and its intricate, even disjunctive narrative designs, which demand the reader’s close attention in order to appreciate the sophistication of Walcott’s global poetics. Even the most patient reader can become overwhelmed by the proliferation of associations and wide-ranging references woven into the text.
Perhaps by virtue of Walcott’s extension of Anglo-Modernist precepts of difficulty and complexity, Omeros is frequently compared to and, at times, taught alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses. There are excellent reference books on Joyce’s modern epic, including Ulysses Annotated by Don Gifford and Robert Seidman and The New Bloomsday Book by Harry Blamires. Until recently, [End Page 197] however, no comparable apparatus has existed for readers of Walcott. Thankfully, Maria McGarrity has furnished a welcome and indispensable resource for approaching the poem’s rigorous yet always invigorating networks of meaning in her carefully researched, remarkably illuminating, and refreshingly accessible guidebook, Allusions in Omeros: Notes and a Guide to Derek Walcott’s Masterpiece.
As McGarrity’s title suggests, this book is not a traditional piece of “literary criticism” per se. Rather, Allusions in Omeros aims to provide readers—including newcomers and seasoned scholars—with annotations and information on the historical, political, cultural, literary, and scholarly materials shaping Walcott’s long poem. To do so, she draws upon the public domain, delves into archives such as the Folk Research Center in Castries, St. Lucia, collaborates with Walcott’s friends and contemporaries such as Dunstan St. Omer, and works from the full range of existing scholarship on Walcott and Caribbean letters more broadly. Throughout, McGarrity combines a close attention to the micro-details of Omeros with a broad-angle view to the macrocontexts shaping the poem and Walcott’s central preoccupations.
The Introduction situates Walcott within a set of interlocking contexts. McGarrity delineates the poet’s life and works, his relation to the epic tradition, his critical reception, and his particular model of cultural hybridity within Caribbean writing. Walcott’s abiding strength, in McGarrity’s eyes, is derived from his expansive historical consciousness and inclusive vision. Walcott, she maintains, seeks to transcend “the limits of nation and geography” and “to move beyond the boundaries of time, space, language, and culture” (7, 15). As she explains, his inclusive vision originates in his particular politics of language, whose syncretism gives positive expression to diasporic cultural production even as it negotiates violent historical realities and enduring economic inequalities (8). The capaciousness of Walcott’s worldview proves inseparable, moreover, from the “epic question”: how Walcott relates to the epic tradition and whether Omeros counts as an epic poem (9). Epic, in Walcott’s hands, is a flexible genre whose spatial extensions and temporal sedimentations—from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, to the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, through Homer, Dante, Virgil, and Joyce—enable him to move past charges of “belatedness” or “mimicry” and toward the forging of a truly “global poetic consciousness” (11). Still, McGarrity demonstrates how, for Walcott, “the global and the local” as well as the “high and the low” figure dialectically in ways that can acknowledge conditions of attachment and alienation, belonging and estrangement, rootedness and dislocation (12). These are Walcott’s signature strategies for mediating the everyday concerns of Caribbean people through...