Before we go any further, there's one super important thing you need to know about reading this poem: PAY ATTENTION. See? We're so serious about this that we busted out the all-caps to say it. Yeah, it's officially business time.
Here's why: This a seriously complex narrative, weaving together multiple narrative threads, tons of historical and literary references, a handful of time zones, fluid scene changes, and shifting points-of-view. The narrative accommodates both the fiction of Walcott's characters and his personal viewpoint and biographical information, with characters from both often interacting—like, say, when the author attends the funeral of one of his characters.
Okay—disclaimer time is over. Let's get down to it, shall we? There are some main narrative threads to track. First, there's the story of fishermen frenemies Achille and Hector, and their mutual friend, Philoctete. Achille and Hector are at the point of killing each other over a woman called Helen. She is, by all accounts, the most splendid woman who ever existed. But she is a woman of indecision. Helen starts out interested in Achille, but her eyes turns to Hector later on.
As you've probably guessed, this destroys Achille and causes Hector to abandon his traditional life on the sea in favor of becoming a transport driver in the rapidly developing cities of St. Lucia. It's a change that ultimately destroys Hector, but not before Helen gets pregnant.
Achille, meanwhile, goes on a spiritual journey to the past—specifically to the African settlement of his ancestors—courtesy of a bad case of sunstroke. (Your mom isn't kidding when she says hydration is important, yo.) He learns his true name, hears his family's original language, and lives their traditional life before he walks back to St. Lucia on the bottom of the ocean. Trippy, right?
Achille becomes more himself after this, more entrenched in his traditional fishing life even as the island transforms before him. There are hotels going up, commercial trawlers clearing out the sea, and annoying white tourists who think he and his people are cute. Still, Achille hangs on, Helen returns to him, and they begin to heal.
His friend Philoctete also needs healing. He has a debilitating leg wound thanks to an anchor (this is symbolically linked to the suffering of his African ancestors). Philoctete gets relief for his wound due to his own spiritual re-connection to Africa and traditional knowledge that had been lost. Ma Kilman, local rum shop keeper and psychic seer, follows the urgings of tiny ants (that represent the spirits of her ancestors on the island) to a mystical plant deep in the forest that ultimately heals Philoctete's body and soul.
Now let's add into the mix one Major Plunkett and his wife, Maud, British ex-pats who came to St. Lucia after World War II to find peace. Major Plunkett is taken with the island and with Helen, who becomes synonymous with the island itself (called "The Helen of the West Indies) and with Helen of Troy, for whom so much destruction was wrought by ancient Greeks and Trojans.
Helen (of St. Lucia) was the Plunketts' maid, but she stole from Maud, thus ending that relationship. But her beauty has captivated Major Plunkett and he feels that he should "help" her. He decides to write a military history of the island, to give a kind of historical identity to both the island and the woman—in the process, he makes the connection between the Caribbean Helens (island and woman) and the ancient one (Helen of Troy) and just can't let it go.
Plunkett is struggling with lots of things: He has a "head wound" from the war, a well-earned chip on his shoulder about class struggles back in England, a lot of guilt about being part of the white empire that dominated St. Lucia, and an Irish wife who would really like to go back home. To top it off, Major Plunkett suffers because he has no son and heir. He throws himself into his research on the Battle of the Saints to alleviate all of this.
In the end, he loses Maud to cancer, though he comes to terms with her death over time and with some help in the form of Ma Kilman's kind words. He has a vision of Maud that seems to heal him even further, releasing him from his romanticized view of the Helens and bringing him closer to the indigenous community.
And finally, it's time for the most complex of these narrative threads: Walcott's own quest to make sense of his own story, discover and bring his characters to life, and discuss his philosophies about poetry and writing. To do this, he injects himself as a first-person omniscient narrator who can descend into the narrative at points and interact with the fictional characters in their own world. It's pretty fancy of him.
Walcott-as-character brings his personal biographical baggage into the story, including two meetings with his father's ghost. The first meeting acts as a commission to Walcott to write about the people of his island and their struggles; the second meeting sends him out into the world to see the great literary capitals of Europe (which are also the seats of imperial power).
As he travels and continues to write his epic poem, Walcott confronts his personal loneliness and love loss, his role as poet, the past of his people, and how all of this is linked to moments of oppression, imperialism, and the creation of art throughout the ages. Whew.
He interacts with three significant figures—apart from his ghost father—from the past: his ex-lover, Antigone, who teaches him Homer's name in Greek (fun fact: it's Omeros); Catherine Weldon, Sitting Bull's secretary and activist for Native American rights; and Omeros himself, the poet who started it all.
Catherine Weldon's story comes to him from her letters and writings, which Walcott is drawn to because they speak of the same kind of suffering and disenfranchisement that happen throughout the ages to indigenous peoples—like the people of his island.
As for Omeros, his character is enriched by shape-shifting/identity-sharing with a local blind man called Seven Seas who has "inner vision." Walcott's interaction with Omeros is that of mentor/disciple in the Poetic Brotherhood—Homer becomes his homeboy, ultimately guiding him through Hell (as Virgil guides Dante in Inferno), helping him find redemption/healing and the "inner sight" that allows him to get his poetry done right.