Translating Poetry into Prose in Omeros

The following is my attempt to translate into straightforward prose a part of a chapter in Derek Walcott’s “Omeros.” The original is Part III of Chapter XXXII. The question I wish to ask is what is it about the poetic version, Walcott’s version, that makes it so much more powerful than my translation below.

[Walcott’s mother has just died and he is heading home in an airplane. The following passage illustrates how Walcott mixes his fictional story of the islanders with his own story. The previous part ended with Walcott viewing a moth flying about in the nursing home where his mother died. The image of the moth continues enigmatically, as it introduces the passage, in which Walcott seems to be breaking the laws of space-time.]

The image in my memory of that moth’s flitting shadow superimposed itself on the ripples of an emerald lagoon, whose clear water showed the underwater topography. The reef in the lagoon had a lilac colored shelf, over which a canoe with a lateen sail [an ancient style triangular sail], looking like a butterfly hooked on a flowering branch, was nearing Gros Îlet village. I watched enormous breakers through the window pane of the airplane I was in, as it departed over the lagoon. I had to imagine their crashing sound, since it was inaudible inside the cabin of the plane. And then, the glare of the blinding sun made them impossible to see. I imagined the Achille of my story as the sailor in the canoe raising his arm from the rudder being buffeted by the currents to bid me farewell. He watched our plane, which would have appeared to him about the size of a minnow, disappearing into the clouds over the mountains of the island, shaped like horns. I imagined that he would imagine a minnow disappearing into a coral reef.

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One Response to Translating Poetry into Prose in Omeros

  1. Ron Boothe says:

    Richard,
    Thank you so much for posting this fascinating interpretation of a passage from Omeros. I think it might be helpful, for readers who do not have the book close at hand, to show for comparison, the original passage from which you inferred this interpretation:

    “The moth’s swift shadow rippled on an emerald
    lagoon that clearly showed the submerged geography
    of the reef’s lilac shelf, where a lateen sail held

    for Gros Îslet village like a hooked butterfly
    on its flowering branch: a canoe, nearing the island.
    Soundless, enormous breakers foamed across the pane,

    then broke into blinding glare. Achille raised his hand
    from the drumming rudder, then watched our minnow plane
    melt into cloud-coral over the horned island.”
    Omeros, Chapter XXXII, Part III

    I wonder how many readers, at least during their first reading of Omeros, were cognizant of the possibility of an interpretation along the lines of what you propose here? I know I was not! During my first reading I was mostly aware of the epic nature of the narrative(s), spanning numerous epochs and places around the globe. It was only during my second reading that I began to more fully appreciate the very personal story of the author underlying all of the other narratives.

    It took me considerable amount of time to figure out who was narrating the story(s) in the poem. All of Chapter I and Part I of Chapter II appear to be 3rd Person descriptions of what is happening. The first use of an explicit 1st Person narrative occurs in Part II of that chapter when the character Seven Seas remembers Omeros from a time “when I was a noun.” This Seven Seas Character appears to have an epic historic scope, telling Omeros, “Only in you, across centuries of the sea’s parchment atlas, can I catch the noise of the surf lines…” Over the remainder of that section the character referenced by “I” begins to morph into a specific individual in modern times who remembers, “the voice that hummed in the vase of a girl’s throat…” And then as the dialogue continues into Part III, it becomes apparent that the “I” is, or has been transformed into, the author, Walcott, or his alter-ego narrator, sitting (as we learn later in the poem) in a studio attic.

    This fluidity of who is being referenced by the term “I” goes on throughout the poem. I initially speculated that the “I” narrator was something akin to a Jungian Collective Unconsciousness. I only gradually began to understand that, at its deepest level, the “I” is Walcott himself, and that the poem is a very personal story of some of his experiences, thoughts, memories, and feelings as he travels to various places around the globe. For example, that his poetic description of Achille watching “our minnow plane melt into cloud-coral over the horned island” [Walcott] can be interpreted as a description of Walcott’s thoughts and feelings as he “imagined the Achille of my story as the sailor in the canoe raising his arm from the rudder being buffeted by the currents to bid me farewell. He watched our plane, which would have appeared to him about the size of a minnow, disappearing into the clouds over the mountains of the island.” [Richard Smaby]

    This interpretation of who is referred to by the term “I” is actually made very explicit in the poem, but I was too preoccupied with the poetry and epic stories to pick up this information in my first reading. In Part II of Chapter V we are informed, “This wound I have stitched into Plunkett’s character. He has to be wounded, affliction is one theme of this work, this fiction, since every ‘I’ is a fiction finally. Phantom narrator, resume…” And these kinds of self-references intrude subtly throughout the poem; a few more examples:

    “There was no difference between me and Philoctete.” Chapter XLVIII, Part III
    “There was Plunkett in my father, much as there was my mother in Maude.” Chapter LII, Part III
    “I was attending the funeral of a character I had created; the fiction of her life needed a good ending as much as mine…” Chapter LIII, Part II
    “I thought of all my travelling.” Chapter LVI, Part II

    Once I realized this dimension of the narrative structure, the poem took on a much more powerful emotional resonance. I was moved to near tears by several sections of the book, particularly the narrator’s recollections of conversations with his dying mother, and his attempts to communicate with his (now) dead father. And Walcott makes himself very vulnerable, struggling for example with feeling like a hypocrite as he drives by a new hotel, for wanting “the poor to stay in the same light so that I could transfix them in amber [in his poems], the afterglow of an empire, preferring a shed of palm-thatch with tilted sticks to that blue bus-stop?” [Chapter XLV, Part II]

    For me personally, this poem, Omeros, can be read and appreciated on my different levels of description, but ultimately, its most profound and emotionally moving level is personal, even sometimes confessional. And Richard, I applaud you for highlighting this personal aspect of the poem in your interpretation of this particular passage.

    Ron Boothe
    psyrgb@emory.edu

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