Since Walcott has taken Homer's Iliad as a model for his work and deals with some of the greatest struggles in history, it's no surprise that he also adopts the serious tone generally reserved for epic tragedy. But Walcott's narrative, though it contains tons of super tragic episodes, can't fairly be called a tragedy.
See, in the end, Achille triumphs over history and nature, while characters like Ma Kilman and Seven Seas tell us that healing is on its way. Plus, though the narrator visits the pit of hell, he doesn't fall in. So we have good reason to hope. Because Walcott walks the line between euphoria and despair, we get some playful punning and wry commentary. His general tone is so composed, though, that you'll be startled when comedy crops up—making sure it packs a real punch, and reinvigorating you despite whatever terrible thing the poem examines next.
It's pretty clear from the title and the length of the work that we're heading into an epic poem. But what does it really mean to be "epic"? You know—when you're not using the word to describe a party.
In the tradition of Homer and other epic dudes like the Beowulf poet, Virgil, and Dante, such a poem relates the heroic journeys of a person or group. They move through treacherous situations, encounter the supernatural, do superhuman deeds—but despite their adventures, the language stays formal and lyrical, using a rigid metrical form to make the verses easily memorable for recitation (think about the griot in Achille's dream-vision who sings about the past).
Walcott shows a lot of love for the epic form, but he also has his own ideas about what an epic can be and do. His poem is about fishermen, not kings, which is a major departure from the ancient form. He's also interested in deconstructing the traditional narrative, inserting himself as narrator in non-traditional ways (recall his attendance at Maud's funeral) and focusing on social/historical ills rather than the heroic deeds of a privileged class. He also pays homage to James Joyce, a postmodernist idol. All of this places Omeros comfortably in postmodernism.
Good luck finding the postmodernist epic poetry section at your local library, though. Might be good to ask for help finding this title.
The narrator's ex-lover explains that Omeros is Homer's name in Greek. But why does Walcott choose an ancient Greek poet as his guide for his work about Caribbean fisherman? There are a few different paths to walk for an answer. First, Walcott-as-narrator says he is inspired to use the unlikely form of Greek epic poetry because of a mystical experience: He sees Antigone's foam bust of Homer and hears the call to write in this genre. When Homer calls, Walcott answers.
But then he makes the connection between St. Lucia as the "Helen of the West Indies" and Helen of Troy—the source of chaos in the Trojan War written about in the Iliad. Since both of these Helens were captives of European powers, the association becomes really helpful to Walcott. It allows him to talk not just about beauty, but also about the strife born of slavery and colonialism on his island. The addition of a modern character named Helen (the Caribbean woman) lets him lay open the fallout of such a legacy and how it affects individual lives.
The last chapter of Omeros functions like an epilogue for three main characters: the narrator, Helen, and Achille. The narrator takes one last shot at explaining the purpose of his "singing" or poetry: to reveal the character of his people on St. Lucia. He makes it pretty clear that he wants to give voice to a population that might otherwise remain silent to the rest of the world.
He tells us that the "goblet is broken," hearkening back perhaps to the vase in the opening of the poem that calls him to this work. In dramatic fashion, he tells us that his life's work is done now, and he can descend into his grave to join Maud and Hector.
Helen makes out all right, working as a waitress and managing her growing belly. But, Walcott says, you might just see her for herself without all of that Greek stuff in the way. She is the beauty of Africa now, proud and lovely—and not something out of ancient Europe.
And finally, Achille. The entire weight of the poem seems to rest on this last vignette in which the hero slaughters fishes on the seashore. It's the final nod to ancient epic poetry—the hero killing it on the battlefield—and Achille has risen above earlier turmoil to triumph over a vast haul o' fish. But in the very end, it's a domestic scene. He's carrying a piece of dolphin home to Helen in Hector's old bailing tin. It seems that the "hymn of the Caribbean" will carry on to the next generation.
Have we said that you have to pay close attention when reading this work? Just in case, we'll say it again: Keep on the lookout. There's a lot of globe-hopping going on here, and if you're not careful, you'll miss the itinerary. Although Walcott sets his story in motion on the island nation of St. Lucia and the entire narrative revolves around it, there are some wicked side-trips.
Most of these trips are taken by the narrator himself, who lives in Massachusetts. It is in New England that he loses his lady love, searches for inspiration (think: Catherine's writings and Winslow Homer's painting), and encounters his father for a second time.
The coldness and whiteness of this land reminds him of the myth that "history only happens in cold places," a staple concern challenged by Caribbean literature. It's also a stark reminder of the racial tensions that lie beneath the surface of New England civility, where white people shy away from him or look downright alarmed when he approaches—even if they are apologetic afterward.
The narrator's tour of Europe is mapped by his father's readings (and his own). He travels to Lisbon, London, Dublin, Venice, and Istanbul in order to gain perspective on his poetic task and to "[sew] the Atlantic rift with a needle's line,/the rift in the soul" (LXIII.iii.319). It's all done in the name of love for an island that has imprinted its beauty on him forever.
Africa occupies a central place in the ancestral memories of the characters. Walcott doesn't dwell on the physical aspects of the land in his descriptions, though—instead, Africa is an emotional and psychological landscape that leaves its marks on Helen (her beauty), Philoctete (his wound), Seven Seas (his language), and Achille (his loyalty to tradition). For more on this, be sure to swing by the "Characters" section.
Importantly, Walcott encounters stories of beauty and oppression in every land he visits, which allow him to bring the two hemispheres of his world much closer together. The rich beauty of St. Lucia ultimately unites the historical narratives of these various places in Walcott's mythic imagination, making it impossible for him to forget these associations and the three Helens that have so captivated him.
On a scale of 1 to James Joyce's Ulysses, this work ranks pretty high. It takes concentration and creativity to read it well, so make sure all your synapses are firing when you take this work on. There are also multiple narrative levels in here—lots of stories going on at once and a variety of timelines, too—all of which move fluidly, sometimes from one line of verse to the next. So, you know, stay sharp.
Because of all this narrative texture, it can be difficult to establish the subject/speaker and setting of any given section. You'll have to be patient and look for clues in the text to help you figure it out. And finally, there are many literary, historical, and pop culture references. Forget what you thought you knew—when it comes to this poem, pretty much no one knows enough. Thank heavens for Shmoop and Google, eh?
Check out this passage from Omeros, in which the narrator describes his experience with the foam bust of Homer at Antigone's house:
But if I could read between the lines of her floor
like a white-hot deck uncaulked by Antillean heat,
to the shadows in its hold, its nostrils might flare
at the stench from manacled ankles, the coffled feet
scraping like leaves, and perhaps the inculpable marble
would have turned its white seeds away, to widen
the bow of its mouth at the horror under the table (II.ii.15)
This use of lyric verse focuses on the emotional inner life of the characters or the narrator. Here we get a flash of the intense ancestral suffering the narrator keeps just under the surface and imagine the response of the most revered poet in the ancient world. Walcott excels at accessing the inner lives of his characters and uses his verse form to advantage when describing it.
But Walcott's verse is lyrical in a more general sense, too. He's able to capture the musical nature of language—both standard English and the dialect of St. Lucia—in the swing and rhythm of each line. Here's a great example of this:
"Touchez-i, encore: N'ai fender choux-ous-u, salope!""Touch it again, and I'll split your arse, you b****!" "Moi j'a dire—'ous pas prêter un rien. 'Ous ni shallope,
'ous ni seine, 'ous croire 'ous ni choueur campêche?" (III.i.15-16)
Even if you can't read/speak French, you can see how the end-rhymes work and feel the rhythm of the lines. That's because Walcott writes loosely in hexameters (the meter of choice for Homer—shocking, we know), using full and near-rhymes to create the sense that this poem should be read aloud (or sung). Just like its predecessors.
Quick: When is water not water? When it's the sea in Omeros. Walcott crafts this symbol very deliberately from his first invocation of Homer. Check it out:
[…] Only in you, across centuries
of the sea's parchment atlas, can I catch the noise
of the surf lines wandering like the shambling fleece
of the lighthouse's flock (II.ii.13)
If you've spent any time at the seaside, you can understand how Walcott makes the connection between the surface of the ocean and a written page: Those lines and wrinkles of waves remind the poet of scribblings on paper. But more than that, the lines of breakers also push Walcott to think epically about the fleecy flocks of sheep belonging to Polyphemus, the Cyclops tricked by Odysseus.
Walcott's literary imagination allows him to map his thoughts onto the landscape of the sea that surrounds his beloved island. The idea of sea as map also helps us to think about the connections the poet makes between the Old World and the New, and between the modern world in the Caribbean and the ancient one on the other side of the globe. It's like the sea is a kind of literary-historical connective tissue that holds Walcott's narrative together.
But the sea has an odd quality, especially for something that's supposed to be a text: It can't be physically marked in any permanent way. And yet Walcott wants us to see the sea as a durable transmitter of history. Hmm… It takes some work of the imagination to envision the ocean as a giant page in a story that is constantly being re-written, but our poet definitely thinks of it in this way:
It was an epic where every line was erased
yet freshly written in sheets of exploding surf
in that blind violence with which one crest replaced
another with a trench and that heart-heaving sough
begun in Guinea to fountain exhaustion here (LIX.i.296)
Can you see what he did there? By moving from the visual lines of the surf to lines of writing, Walcott immediately focuses us on a specific type of writing: epic poetry. The parchment with its lines becomes a nifty, short-hand way to link the visual experience of the sea with the poet's choice of genre. Best use of metonymy. Ever.
We can argue that the poem itself is a meditation on how an ancient, literary past affects our perception of the world around us. The figure of the sea as parchment highlights the role played by the natural world in the transmission of this artform from one culture to another—as people are moved across the sea, so, too, is their art. Or some of their art, anyway.
The poet is literally beckoned by the "book of the sea" to seek epic origins for his work: "A wind turns the harbour's pages back to the voice that hummed in the vase of a girl's throat: 'Omeros'" (II.ii.13). This call is the voice he can't get out of his head.
It's also the image Walcott can't get out of his mind when he thinks about his personal identity. His life is so caught up in the lines of his writing that parchment inevitably comes back when he begins his journey to the afterlife and thinks about his verse and purpose: "I could hear the crumpling parchment of the sea in/the wind's hand, a silence without emphasis,/but I saw no shadow underline my being" (LVI.ii.282). At the end of his career, the sea and the page—his two great loves—have the last words.
Sometimes we hit the jackpot when reading poetry and the poet tells us how to interpret an image. This is the case with the sea-swift (that's a common term to you and me):
[…] she was the mind-
messenger, and her speed outdarted Memory.
She was the swift that he had seen in the cedars
in the foam of clouds, when she had shot across
the blue ridges of waves, to a god's orders,
and he, at the beck of her beak, watched the bird hum
the whipping Atlantic, and felt he was headed home. (XXIV.iii.131)
And if that's not enough for you, God himself descends into the book to give us a bit more, saying: "Is I send the sea-swift as a pilot,/the swift whose wings is the sign of my crucifixion" (XXV.i.134). Well, there you go.
Let's not be lazy about this, though. Just because one character (even if it is God) tells you to think one way about something doesn't mean that's the end of interpretation. When we first see the swift, she is part of Achille's observations. He glories in her beauty and thinks about his fondness for the sea—until things get creepy.
In the throes of sun-stroke, Achille realizes that perhaps the bird "was no swallow but the bait of the gods,/that she had seen the god's body torn from its hill" (XXIV.i.126). Yikes. He is understandably (and rightly) freaked out about the creature at this point. This isn't just a bird—it's an archetype.
The swift drags Achille on a journey that he doesn't necessarily want to take, even though it is crucial to his understanding of his personal identity. In essence, the sea-swift, in addition to all those lofty things we already know about her, unlocks Achille's ancestral past for him. And when she does this, she brings the two halves of his life together: his African roots and his St. Lucian present.
The swift, then, becomes a symbol of healing in the poem. Recall that it is a swift that carries the seed that will heal Philoctete all the way from Africa in its belly (XLVII.iii.238-239). It's also a swift that carries away the souls of the dead (XXXV.ii.179) and a swift that becomes a figure for Catherine Weldon's pen—which offers solace to our grieving narrator (XXXV.iii.181). Yup, this bird's on a healing spree.
Just as the swift heals the division in Achille's identity, she also helps the poet reconcile some big ideological difficulties, and solve some narrative problems:
I followed a sea-swift to both sides of this text;
her hyphen stitched its seam, like the interlocking
basins of a globe in which one half fits the next
into an equator, both shores neatly clicking
into a globe […]
Her wing-beat carries these islands to Africa,
she sewed the Atlantic rift with a needle's line,
the rift in the soul. (LXIII.iii.319)
The swift allows Walcott to talk about two different worlds simultaneously and helps him bring together two halves of the Caribbean soul to create a coherent and comprehensive story of his people. She's a pretty amazing character, for a bird.
When he returns from his spirit-journey across the Atlantic, Achille and his mate spot a large, black frigate-bird in the air above the island. The men comment on the relationship between the white gulls and the black bird, which is quite the opposite from the racial interactions in their lives: "Them stupid gulls does fish/for him every morning. He himself don't catch none,/white slaves for a black king" (XXX.i.158). This is about as inverted a dynamic as possible in this book.
The two men comment on the idiocy of the situation, Achille even pointing out the injustice of the arrangement. And yet, there is something admirable in the bird, something beautiful and proud. This something brings Afolabe to Achille's mind, and he sees the name of his father written in the sky with the tips of the frigate-bird's wings.
So it is that the frigate-bird symbolizes a righting of the social order for Achille and his people—or at least a restoration of dignity that was lost through enslavement and poverty. The bird is a reminder of the power and pride that belongs to each human being.
It's the cry of the frigate-bird that brings the narrator back to his senses after he stupidly insults Omeros on their trip to the Underworld ("I haven't really read all of your works," he says (LVI.iii.283)) and helps him voice his true admiration for the great poet.
It's no coincidence, then, that the bird finds its way back into the text when the narrator makes his poetic voice heard in praise of the island: "My voice was going/under the strength of his voice, which carried so far/that a black frigate heard it, steadying its wing" (LVII.i.287). Just as the frigate-bird is connected to the dignity of Achille and his people, in its connection to the narrator's voice, it's connected to his dignity as well.
While the sea-swift stands for something more ethereal—even supernatural—the frigate-bird represents St. Lucia itself (be sure to read up on the sea-swift elsewhere in this section). As a reminder of a proud but lost past, and the sign of the natural majesty and beauty of the island, it acts as a kind of spiritual compass for the wanderers in this text.
Pro tip: In the world of Omeros, you probably don't want to crush any ants. They may be tiny, but they represent some serious might in this poem.
The key to this symbol can be found early in the text, when the narrator meets with his ghost-father for the first time. He reminds his son of the women who carried heavy baskets of coal on their heads for mere pennies to support their families, recalling: "the unending/line crossing like ants without touching for the whole day" (XIII.iii.74). And when they reached the top of their climb, he notes: "There, like ants or angels, they see their native town,/unknown, raw, insignificant" (XIII.iii.75). They are above their town, but not necessarily empowered by this (ants are tiny) or really part of it (angels, after all, aren't earthly).
These women in particular represent not just a lost generation of ancestors; they are also the purveyors of culture and language. They embody a whole way of life that is all but lost to the characters in the text. Achille feels the searing guilt of one who should remember the "true names" for things in the natural world, words in a language that he doesn't understand but that he perceives to be in his blood.
Ma Kilman also experiences the frustrating loss of ancestral knowledge when she goes on the memory quest to find the root or herb that will heal Philoctete's wound. It isn't until she hears the call of the ants (these are actual ants, friends) in a language that she recognizes that she can succeed in her mission:
Her hair sprung free as the moss. Ants scurried
through the wiry curls, barring, then passing each other
the same message with scribbling fingers and forehead
touching forehead. Ma Kilman bent hers forward,
and as her lips moved with the ants, her mossed skull heard
the ants talking the language of her great-grandmother (XLVIII.ii.243-244)
You read that right: The ants are transmitting the lost language of Ma Kilman's ancestors through their little antennae. It's not exactly personification; it's more like transmigration—the simile Walcott uses earlier becomes reality.
Although the ant comes across as a rather noble little creature for the services it renders, let's make no mistake: It's not exactly a noble creature—in fact, we generally use the image of the ant to convey feelings of smallness and insignificance. Walcott plays on this habit when he chooses ants as his point of comparison for the women crushed (literally and figuratively) by the weight of their servitude as they carry coal.
Achille sees this line up when he envisions his newly enslaved ancestors as "ants arriving at the sea's rim/or climbing the pyramids of coal" (XXVII.ii.146). And when it comes to their descendants who deal with the psychological wounds of slavery, they also are presented as little, shame-filled ants (XLVIII.iii.245).
Walcott himself is even an ant: "I was an ant on the forehead of an atlas,/the stroke of one spidery palm on a cloud's page,/an asterisk only" (LIX.i.294). On the one hand, he's feeling supremely insignificant, humbled by his smallness in the historical perspective of things—but on the other, he's become his island. Like St. Lucia, he is a speck on the atlas, a footnote existing on the margins of history. But he's also an entire freaking island.
If this ant business sounds depressing, well, that's because it totally can be. We see both the narrator and Major Plunkett looking for a way to insert St. Lucia into the epic History of the World (that's right, we busted out capitalization for that one) because they feel it has been forgotten. But Walcott makes it clear that St. Lucia holds a unique place in history and in his own mind:
[…] The sea was my privilege.
And a fresh people. The roar of famous cities
entered the sea-almond's branches and then tightened
into silence (LIX.i.295)
Ants they may be (as most of us are), but the island filters away the violence of history and gives Walcott a rare insight into its place in the world.
We couldn't possibly cite every use of coins in the poem, but we're here to tell you to be on the lookout because coins are an important image here. From Achille's understandable obsession with them (because he doesn't have enough) to the "tugs chirring up a devalued empire/as the coins of their wake passed the Houses of Parliament" (XXXVIII.ii.195) spotted by Omeros on the banks of the Thames, coins represent not just monetary value, but also the people and places turned into commodities by trade and empire.
In short, this is definitely a mo' money, mo' problems kind of situation.
For Achille, the equation of love with silver coins devalues his relationship with Helen and his very life: "Wasn't love worth more/than the coins of light pouring from the galleon's doors?" (VIII.ii.45). Ultimately, he can't bring himself to take the galleon-coins, which represent for him "the ransom of centuries," a possibly unwholesome booty gained during an action for which "no coins were enough to repay its deep evil" (VIII.ii.46). He chooses to keep his hands clean of history's violence, even if it means not getting paid.
Coin are a mechanism for trade, too, which helps Walcott talk about the objectification of both humans and the natural world. As Achille witnesses the raid on his ancestors' settlement, he notes the inevitability of the future in the "tinkle from coins of the river, the tinkle of irons" (XXVIII.ii.146). The sounds of both river and leg chains echo the clinking of coins, grimly summing up the dehumanization of the slave trade, as well as the plunder of natural resources for money.
Here's a good rule of thumb for coins in this book: They highlight the problems that crop up when something truly precious is thought of in purely monetary terms. Along this line, Achille runs up against the juggernaut of the commercial fishing industry and its infinite appetite for natural resources:
[…] New silver was
the catch threshing the cavernous hold till each mound
was a pyramid; banks robbed by thirty-mile seines,
their refrigerated scales packed as tightly as coins,
and no more lobsters on the seabed. (LX.i.300)
The silver of the coveted fish is mirrored in the silver coins they win at market—and the silver coins that Achille will not see in his pocket at the end of the day because the seas have been fished clean. As in the other uses of the coin image, there is robbery here: of resources, life, and dignity. In the end, when silver mackerel once again grace Achille's nets, their sound is not the sound of fish flopping about in the nets; it's the sound of coins in a bowl (LXIV.iii.324).
One of the hardest tasks you will have in reading this poem is simply figuring out who the heck is narrating at any given moment. The work starts off in third person (omniscient) as Philoctete performs for the tourists: "'This is how, one sunrise, we cut down them canoes.'/Philoctete smiles for the tourists" (I.i.3). But pretty soon, we have a first person omniscient narrator who's having a quasi-mystical experience with a foam bust of Homer (II.iii.14).
We're confident that you can handle those narrative changes—but that said, let's discuss Chapter V. Here, the narrator shifts from his third-person observations of Major Plunkett and Maud to a first-person reflection:
[…] but for Dennis, in his khaki shirt
[…] the crusted tourists were corpses in the desert
from the Afrika Korps. Pro Rommel, pro mori.
The regimental brandies stiffened on the shelves
near Napoleonic cognacs. All history
in a dusty Beefeater's gin. We helped ourselves
to these green islands like olives from a saucer (V.i.25)
It's not clear if we're to accept this as the narrator's first-person commentary, or if it is an unmarked dip into Major Plunkett's consciousness. We do know, though, that in section iii, the first-person narrator is definitely Major Plunkett himself.
Because Walcott's work contains autobiographical elements, it's tempting to talk about the narrator and the author as one entity—but be careful. The narrator warns us about doing this because "every 'I' is a/fiction finally" (V.ii.28). Walcott is really interested in playing with the limits of narrative voice and presence (thank you, postmodernism).
We see this most clearly in his visits with his parents and his participation in the fiction of the narrative—like attending Maud's funeral or speaking with Major Plunkett at the bank. Because he (the author, the narrator) becomes so entangled in the narrative, it can be tough to figure out whose eyes we're looking through at any given point. So make sure you keep yours open.
Since we have several narrative threads in this work, we also have more than one call to take a spiritual or physical journey—and they happen in a variety of moments in the text. Worry not, though, we're going to break them all down for you.
The narrator receives the call to poetry when he is with Antigone (his ex-love) and he hears "a hollow moan exhaled from a vase." He gets another push from the ghost of his father, who appears twice—first, to encourage him to give voice to his silent ancestors, and then to send him off to travel the world. Thanks, Dad.
Achille receives a supernatural "invitation"—okay, he's kind of kidnapped—from the sea-swift who pulls his canoe across space and time to arrive at the African settlement of his ancestors. Major Plunkett is pulled across the Atlantic in the opposite direction, obeying his need for peace by settling with Maud on the island. He is also drawn to research and write about St. Lucia by Helen's beauty and his lack of an heir.
Ma Kilman gets her summons from a line of ants in the woods that speak to her in the tongue of her ancestors and awaken the knowledge inside her to find the medicinal plant necessary to cure Philoctete of his everlasting wound.
The moral of the story is this: Whether it's the ghost of a father or a line of ants, when the call comes in, our characters answer.
As with calls, we're dealing with multiple journeys. But again—fear not, we're going to break them down for you.
Achille makes a sunstroke-induced journey to the land of his ancestors and dwells among them, learning his true name and the language and ways of his people. Yay. Walcott travels the world (and sometimes back home to St. Lucia) in his quest for characters, inspiration, and understanding of the suffering he's planning to write about.
Although Hector doesn't receive a call to do so (in the strictest sense), he does step away from his fisherman's life to take up transport driving, thus literally propelling himself all over the island in the hope of finding a new life. Meanwhile, Plunkett makes his way around the island, drawing his own maps and diagrams, double-checking facts, digging through trash, and making wild analogies in his search for meaning and fulfillment.
In other words, when it comes to the journey, some of our characters are traveling through space and time, while others are kind of going in circles. So it goes with journeys, we suppose.
Achille dwells in this phase a little longer than the other characters. First, he arrives in the African settlement and has to confront his own ignorance and ambivalence. He's also homesick, though he is "home," and misses his ocean. Achille knows what will befall his people, but despite his best efforts, he cannot stop their enslavement and subsequent centuries of suffering. Once he returns to St. Lucia, he finds that "progress" is quickly destroying his life and the land. It's a rough run for this guy, for sure.
Hector finds that his new career does not suit him: He misses the ocean and the spirituality it inspired in him. Oops. Major Plunkett faces the difficulty of composing history and sorting through his passions in the process. In the course of his travels, he learns of the ill-fated Midshipman Plunkett and feels that he has reached the end of his work.
Walcott finds that his travels tucker him out, since everywhere he goes harbors the histories of either captives or captors (and sometimes both). His journey home forces him to confront a changing landscape and a dying mother with a deteriorating memory. We'd prefer a nap, too—seems way easier and less emotionally heavy.
Major Plunkett loses his wife, Maud; Achille has to look for new seas if he wants to maintain his traditional fishing life—all while avoiding the tourists who think his existence is quaint; Hector dies on the road while avoiding a randomly wandering piglet; Walcott gets a trip to hell with Omeros/Seven Seas as his guide and sees what fate awaits him if his attitude doesn't change; Ma Kilman exerts her skills to brew a new concoction for Philoctete.
Right about now, it looks like there's no rest for the weary, doesn't it? Hang in there, though…
Ah yes, the goal. Three cheers for finally reaching the end point, right? Plunkett learns to live without Maud—though he talks to her, listens to her, and sees her during this time. He also finds a way to become more relaxed and more at one with the people of the island so they can all have a simpatico relationship.
Helen comes back to Achille and the two are a loving couple, preparing for the arrival of the child (Hector's) that Helen is carrying. Achille more fully embraces his African ancestry, though Helen is not on board with that yet. Philoctete is healed and can officially re-join Achille on the sea.
After his mini-holiday in hell (j/k—that trip seems terrible), Walcott has a new perspective on his love life and his craft, and prays to develop the inner vision that belongs to all true poets.
We're introduced to the cast of characters, and learn about the encroaching tourists, Philoctete's leg wound, and the feud between Achille and Hector over Helen. We see Plunkett and his wife Maud in their house, learn of his war wounds, lack of children, and need to plunge into research about the island to give Helen (the island and the lady) a history. Walcott gives us a glimpse of his lost love and he meets the ghost of his father, who tells him to give voice to his people, whom history has ignored.
Major Plunkett's research confirms the connection between the Caribbean Helens (island and lady) and the ancient one. He also finds an ancestor whose history is wrapped up in St. Lucia's—Plunkett "adopts" the young man as the son he's never had. As one does.
Helen leaves Achille and moves in with Hector, prompting Hector to sell his canoe and buy a van to become a taxi driver. On Walcott's side: He's back in Massachusetts seeking character-inspiration. He finds Catherine Weldon and sees Achille in Winslow Homer's painting, and he also encounters his ghost dad again, who tells him he needs to travel.
Achille suffers sunstroke and takes a spirit-journey to the African settlement of his ancestors where, among other things, he learns his true name.
Achille helplessly witnesses his people being taken into captivity. Walcott goes on his tour of European capitals, per Dad's request, and runs into Omeros in London. St. Lucia is changing, moving away from village life to cater to the tourists, much to Achille's annoyance. As for Hector, he dies in a car accident; Helen is pregnant with his child.
Philoctete's sore is unbearable, but won't be healed. Maud dies of cancer, and Walcott returns to St. Lucia and attends her funeral. He is led by Omeros/Seven Seas to the Underworld, where he has a frightening, yet cathartic, experience. Ma Kilman listens to the call of her ancestors through the ants and finds the plant that will cure Philoctete.
Yup, we have ourselves the point of no return for pretty much everyone here.
Helen moves back in with Achille, who continues to battle the encroachment of tourism and commercial fishermen. Ma Kilman bathes Philoctete in the new concoction she's made and he is healed both physically and spiritually; he accompanies Achille on an unsuccessful journey to find new fishing grounds. Major Plunkett adjusts to life without Maud and gets a whole new perspective on the island and his place in it.
Walcott lets go of his lost love and gains a new perspective on his role as poet, as well as on his poetry. Achille and Philoctete perform ritual African dance on Boxing Day and Philoctete relives the pain of his ancestors through it. Achille wants to give Helen's baby an African name, but she won't do it—she does, however, get a job as a waitress at the Halcyon. Major Plunkett learns how to be with the people of the island and settles down more comfortably in the place he loves. Walcott and Omeros improvise poetry in praise of St. Lucia together. Because of course they do.
The first act comprises Books I and II, and it's when the major storylines are laid down and the characters established.
This act's all about globetrotting: Achille to Africa and the Middle Passage (Book III); Walcott in North America (Book IV); and then Walcott moving through Europe and returning to North America (Book V). Put on your travel pants for this one.
Here—in Books VI and VII—we return to St. Lucia, witness a visit to hell, and generally see the various plots wind down.