Tribute to “The Dead”: Derek Walcott’s latent feminism

Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros appropriates images and narratives of classical epics, especially the Odyssey, to forge a new narrative that mixes elements of the classical and the contemporary. Walcott invests his Caribbean characters with classical characteristics, uniting disparate discourses into a new discourse that is uniquely his own. In doing so, Walcott follows James Joyce. As Richard Ellman argues, Walcott, like Joyce when depicting his Irish characters, blends “two ends of the western tradition like a multitemporal, multiterritorial pun” (Pollard 205). As Charles W. Pollard puts it, “Walcott mimics Joyce’s strategy, but he widely broadens the ends of his…tradition… [combining] the classical and vernacular, ‘Western’ and ‘African,’ elite and popular cultural traditions that make up his Caribbean experience” (205). Walcott’s technique of blending together ostensibly competing discourses into something entirely new is distinctly Joycean.

This new discourse, formed as it is by a man adopting the model of another man, strikes some critics as missing something crucial: Walcott is often read as not inclusive of women, or even as anti-woman. For critics such as Dionne Brand and to a lesser extent Paul Breslin, Walcott evinces a “[distasteful]” “‘ideology’…on matters of gender” (Breslin 288). Elaine Savory, echoing Brand and Breslin, argues that Walcott’s “macho attitudes” restrain his art from its full potential and limit its audience (Breslin 288). Among these “macho attitudes” are a failure to follow the path of feminist critics in “[repudiating] masculine discourse’s capture of the trope of the female body as territory symbolizing the nation”; and, more concretely, what Savory calls Walcott’s lack of “creative perception” in depicting “women characters, who are linear [in] comparison [to his male characters]” (Burnett 45; Savory 254). As Savory puts it:

Walcott is clearly capable of superb characterization and writing, [so] it is a pity that when he depicts women his aesthetic achievement falls to a level of relative banality. His portrait of the Black woman, for instance, bears no relation to the feisty, emotionally various, strong, vulnerable and generally complex picture emerging by Black women themselves. (254)

Savory’s analysis can certainly be argued with. Paula Burnett, for instance, takes issue with Savory’s “generalized” “‘portrait of the Black woman,’” which, Burnett contends, “takes no account of such personas and Helen and Ma Kilman in Omeros” (46). Regardless of how well developed Walcott’s female characters are, the world of Walcott’s poetry is, as Savory asserts, “predominantly a male one” (Breslin 288). Walcott still gives us good reason question his views of women and gender.

Pursuing questions surrounding women and gender in Omeros—especially with respect to Walcott’s mimicry of Joyce—yields results that should do some work to redeem Walcott in the eyes of feminist critics. In addition to borrowing from Joyce strategically—in appropriating the Odyssey as Joyce does—Walcott borrows from Joyce directly, appropriating aspects of Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” The ways in which these bits of “The Dead” are put to use in Omeros can be read as feminist. Omeros includes three encounters between a father and a son: between Walcott and the ghost of his father Warwick in chapter XII, between Achille and the ghost of his father Afolabe in chapter XXV, and between Walcott and his literary father, Joyce, in chapter XXXIX. Reading these three father/son encounters in Omeros through the lens of “The Dead” allows us to see Walcott echoing his artistic relationship to Joyce—in having fathers offer sons discourses to integrate into their own—and, in the process, exalting women. Warwick offers Walcott the vocation of poetry; in depicting this exchange, Walcott reanimates women who have been lost. Afolabe offers Achille his ancestral language; in transferring this offer from “The Dead” to this scene, Walcott replaces the sexism that subjugates women with pragmatism. Finally, Joyce offers Walcott his work, his “song”; in recounting his meeting with Joyce, Walcott destroys boundaries between the male and the female and esteems women as fellow artists. In refiguring “The Dead” in these ways, Omeros—in the context of meetings between men, in a series of masculine discourses—venerates the feminine. Walcott’s “ideology of gender” is far more complex than many critics suggest.

We can begin to see this complication in Omeros’s first father/son encounter, the meeting between Walcott and Warwick in chapter XII. During this meeting, the father offers his son the discourse of poetry, and the son accepts, all in an atmosphere that reveres the feminine. Warwick tells Walcott that he has “[inherited]” his father’s “Will”—both his will to write poetry and “The Bard,” Shakespeare, as a sort of guide (68). Warwick, raised on St. Lucia but “christened” for Warwickshire—the home county of both his English “bastard father” and Shakespeare—struggles to unite the European and the Caribbean in verse (68). But because Warwick feels profoundly alienated from “The Bard’s county” and the English literary tradition he loves, from “the foreign machinery known as literature,” he “[writes] with the heart of an amateur,” and thus fails in his struggle. The best he can do is to “transplant Warwickshire” to the “obscure Caribbean port” he calls home—he can dislocate and juxtapose, but he cannot fuse (68-69). Warwick passes this poetic charge on to his son: “the…notebook where [Walcott finds Warwick’s] verses” “[make Warwick’s] life’s choices” (68). And in writing Omeros, Walcott accepts his father’s discourse and accomplishes his goal.

Warwick’s offer of poetry to his son occurs in circumstances that tie it to “The Dead” through common feminine elements; and though these elements are initially suppressed by time, Walcott reanimates them. The first paragraph of “The Dead” sets up the upper floor of the house as a distinctly feminine space—the “[gentlemen]” remain “on the ground floor,” while the “upstairs” is dominated by “ladies” “dressing” and “walking after each other” (175). The upper floor of Walcott’s childhood home in St. Lucia, where he meets Warwick, is similarly feminine. When Walcott ascends the “cramped stair” of the house he finds “[his] mother’s room [,] sunlit, // with its rose quilt” (67). But this vision is an illusory memory—the house has been converted into a “printery” and the room is filled with printing presses; his mother and her things are long gone (67). Walcott brings them back, feminizing the machines that have supplanted the feminine, reconciling them to his memories of his mother’s room. He observes that “Two girls” handle the “Pink handbills” that come off the “bed” of the press that is running—both the “pink” product and its handlers are feminine (67). Walcott imagines these pink sheets of paper becoming “sheets” of “linen, [and] the [presses,] furniture”; they transform into his mother’s “wardrobe [, or] her winged, angelic mirror” (67-68). Just as in “The Dead,” in chapter XII of Omeros the upper floor of the house is dominated by the feminine, if only through the will of the poet’s imagination. Walcott revives the feminine upstairs of “The Dead” and ensures that it its femininity persists.

In Omeros’s second father/son encounter, chapter XXV’s meeting between Achille and the ghost of his father Afolabe in Africa, the father again offers the son a discourse. This encounter, too, finds resonance with “The Dead,” resonance that salvages women from oppression by sexism. The arrival of Gabriel Conroy at his aunts’ house in “the Dead” shares much with Achille’s arrival at his father’s village in Africa; and it is in these locations that each is offered his ancestral discourse. Both arrivals are characterized by a good deal of talking—Joyce’s house is full of “gossiping and laughing” and “palaver”; similarly, Achille is welcomed by “chattering” and “[chuckling]” and “[babbling]” (Joyce 175; Joyce 178; Walcott 135-136). Additionally, a sort of inevitability characterizes both arrivals. Gabriel’s aunts anxiously anticipate his arrival, moving “every two minutes to the banisters” to see whether he has come and “[wondering] what could be keeping [him],” as if his attendance is essential to ensure that their dance “[goes] off in splendid style,” which it has “as long as anyone [can] remember” (176; 175). Achille’s arrival is similarly anticipated: the women of the village “[pause] at their work [and smile] at [his] / returning [—] they [cry] and [are] happy”; and “it [seems],” as though “everything [has been] rehearsed / for ages before this” (136). The arrival of each son is also characterized by a preoccupation with clothing. Lily, the housemaid who “[opens] the door for [Gabriel],” “[helps] him off with his overcoat”; likewise, the crowd welcoming Achille “[touches] and “[scrabbles]” “his trousers [and] undershirt” (Joyce 177; Walcott 135). Finally, Walcott highlights the likeness of these two homecomings by telling us that in communing with Afolabe and the other villagers, Achille is “moving with the dead” [emphasis added] (136). Achille’s arrival at his father’s village is eerily similar to Gabriel’s arrival at his aunts’ house.

This similarity does not stop with superficial detail: each son is soon offered the discourse of his ancestors. Though neither accepts, the circumstances surrounding each character’s dismissal of his ancestral discourse are wildly different. Gabriel rejects the Irish of his forefathers because it is tied up with the feminine and conflicts with the masculine, English discourse he finds stable. In recasting this offer as one from Afolabe to Achille, Walcott excises Gabriel’s sexism. Like Gabriel, Achille does not accept the discourse he is offered; but he does not reject it, either. Instead he integrates the discourse of his father with the language to which he is accustomed, creating a new discourse. In appropriating Gabriel’s sexist rejection of his ancestors’ discourse, Walcott provides a blueprint for bringing together seemingly opposed discourses, replacing sexism with a sort of pragmatism.

For Gabriel, the offer of an inherited discourse comes from Miss Ivors, a guest at the dance in “The Dead.” Miss Ivors confronts Gabriel about a literary column he writes under a pseudonym for a “West Briton” paper (187-188). His tie to this paper indicates, she thinks, that Gabriel is not in touch with “[his] own [country and] language [,] Irish” (189). Instead of treating Miss Ivors’s question with candor, Gabriel insults her intelligence, defensively patronizing her and treating her as an inferior. He asks whether she is sure she means to bring this up “with [him]” and not another; he attempts to “knit his brows…as if he [does] not understand”; and he refuses to admit that he could be “ashamed” of such a deed (187-188). Gabriel contemplates justifying his writing articles for the British paper by telling her that “literature [is] above politics,” but he admits to himself that she is as educated as he is—that “their careers had been parallel…at the University and…as teachers”—and realizes that she will never accept a “grandiose phrase” from him (188). This realization dismantles him, starting him “blinking his eyes and trying to smile and murmuring lamely” (188). When forced by Miss Ivors’s forthrightness to address her question, Gabriel responds that “[he is] sick of [Ireland]” and that “Irish is not [his] language” (189). Here, Gabriel rejects Irish, the language of his ancestors; but this rejection is intimately tied up with his sexism—its motivation seems to be as much uneasiness with strong, intelligent women as anxiety about Irish.

Gabriel’s discomfort with the female and the Irish causes him to cling to a literal “discourse” that is both male and English—the speech he plans to give that evening over dinner, a speech that is scripted to contain a quotation from the English poet Robert Browning (192; 179). Indeed, Gabriel uses his male, British discourse to disparage the Irish and the female through Miss Ivors. For having fallen back on his speech, he modifies it in an attempt to get back at the “critical quizzing” Miss Ivors for her questions, reviewing it and tweaking it to imply—at least to himself—that she lacks “hospitality [,] humor [and] humanity” (192). Gabriel is unable to absorb the female and the Irish into his discourse—except, that is, to insult them.

Much as Gabriel is asked to embrace his native language of Irish, Achille is asked to embrace the language of his father Afolabe. Like Gabriel, Achille does not fully accept when offered the discourse of his ancestor; but unlike Gabriel, he bears no malice or bias against it. Thus, far from retreating from it, he is able to integrate it with his own. From the beginning of Achille’s discussion with Afolabe, language is the primary issue—Afolabe sees language as a tool for describing discrete things in the world; a thing and its name are, for him, the same. Accordingly, Afolabe’s first action is to tell Achille his name, and to ask Achille his own—to gain a better understanding of Achille the man, Afolabe asks Achille what “Achille” means (137). Achille’s response exposes the rift between their discourses: Achille does not place faith in the notion that sign and signified are the same (137). Achille tells Afolabe that he “[does] not know” what his name means because “the…sea has changed around every name”—in the wake of this sea, a name is “a sound that is missing” (138; 137; 137). Afolabe insists that “every name is a blessing” and must “[mean] something,” for if not, then the person it belongs to would “be nothing” (137). If Achille is “content with not knowing what [their] names mean,” Afolabe says, “then [Afolabe is] not / Afolabe” (138). Afolabe’s distress seems unwarranted to Achille, who looks at language pragmatically, in terms of how it can be used—“[names] mean something / maybe,” he says, “What’s the difference? In the world I come from we accept the sounds we were given” (138). Words for Achille are tools; names are ways to identify things that need identifying. He cannot tell Afolabe what his name means absolutely because for him, it has no absolute meaning, no name does—the relationship between sign and signified is a constantly shifting one. He “can only tell [Afolabe] what [he believes]” (138). Achille contradicts Afolabe, discounting his notion that the sign and the signified are one and passively denying his discourse. Father and son seem to have reached an impasse.

Though Afolabe’s view of language challenges Achille’s, at the end of chapter XXV Achille embodies both his father’s discourse and his own. Achille’s view of language prompts Afolabe to call him “nameless son” and, satirizing his son’s philosophy of language, to compare him to “the smoke from a fire that never burned”—smoke, here, standing as a sign without a concrete mooring in the world (137-138). Achille is saddened by his father’s distress and his mockery, but instead of arguing with him, uses his sadness to create a synergy between them. He gives “no answer” to Afolabe as “tears [glaze] his eyes” (139). At these tears, Afolabe “[lowers] his head,” mimicking Achille’s “[nodding]”; and in these tears, Achille unites their discourses, “his eyes” “[reflecting] / the past as well as the future,” reflecting the discourses of both (139). Achille, though not quite accepting his father’s language, has integrated it into himself. Walcott, having drawn parallels between Gabriel and Achille’s respective homecomings, removes Gabriel’s sexism when appropriating Joyce’s narrative. Whereas Gabriel reacts with a sexist dismissal and retreat, Achille reacts with a pragmatic empathy, eliciting similarities between himself and his father and encompassing their disparate discourses. In this second father/son encounter, stubborn sexism is replaced with pragmatism.

Omeros’s third father/son encounter, between Walcott and Joyce in chapter XXXIX, further exalts women. Walcott again locates us in “The Dead” though detail and imagery; and again, the father provides the son with a discourse. The manner in which this discourse is offered breaks down gender distinctions and esteems women as artists. We enter chapter XXXIX just as we leave “The Dead”: Walcott begins precisely where Joyce leaves off, in an Irish cemetery. The “great headstones” of Walcott’s graveyard resonate with “the crooked crosses and headstones” of Joyce’s graveyard; and Walcott’s “tonsured hill” reproduces Joyce’s “treeless hills” (Walcott 198; Joyce 223). Having set this stage, Walcott sends himself to meet Joyce in a Dublin restaurant, and it is here that Joyce offers Walcott a discourse—his work and song. As Pollard points out, Joyce is joined in his song by artist figures from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake—Joyce absorbs Walcott into his work, surrounding him with its characters and artists (Pollard 207; Walcott 200). Walcott embraces Joyce’s music, calling Joyce “our age’s Omeros, undimmed Master, / the true tenor of the place” (200). Here, Walcott accepts the discourse Joyce offers him, “[blessing himself] in [Joyce’s] voice” and joining in his song (200).

This song—and Walcott’s joining it—breaks down gender distinctions posited in “The Dead.” To reach Joyce in the restaurant, Walcott must make his way “up…wooden stairs”—to reach Joyce, who is, of course, a man, Walcott must move from what is in “The Dead” male-dominated space to a female-dominated space (Walcott 200; Joyce 175). Walcott’s recasting of Joycean imagery also breaks down gender distinctions. In “The Dead,” overcoats in the men’s dressing room are “[fringed with] snow” (177). Walcott takes this fringing imagery and associates it with a feminine piece of clothing, the shawl. Joyce and those accompanying him, Walcott says, “[are] singing in fringed shawls” (201). This shifting of fringing imagery may seem unremarkable, but Walcott points us directly to “The Dead” in effecting this shift, calling Joyce and his fellow singers “The Dead”—with this explicit allusion, he makes the male female (201). Walcott also takes Gabriel’s reaction to Miss Ivors’s forthrightness, “[murmuring],” and uses it as the verb to describe his entry into Joyce’s song: he “[murmurs] along with [the singers]” (Joyce 188; Walcott 200). Walcott extracts “murmuring,” from its sexist moorings in “The Dead,” transforming it from a product of sexism into a product of awe. And this awe is partially directed at the power of women, for joining Joyce and the artist figures of his work in song is Walcott’s female character Maud Plunkett (201). Maud not only joins the artists’ song, she also joins Joyce in presiding over it. For as Joyce “[leads them] in song,” Maud Plunkett provides the music, “[playing]” the pub piano (201). Furthermore, Maud takes on the qualities of a poet-journeyer in this passage, for her music is described in metaphors evocative of a journey at sea: “each felted oar” of the piano “[lifts] and [dips],” “rowing her” from island to island. As Maud demonstrates, one need not be male to make the music of poetry—one need not be, in Gabriel’s case, Robert Browning (Joyce 179). Walcott’s meeting with Joyce distorts the gender boundaries that define “The Dead,” making the masculine feminine, making the sexist feminist, and placing women in roles traditionally reserved for men.

Reading Omeros in light of “The Dead” demonstrates that Walcott’s work venerates the feminine—even if not always venerating, as Savory might object, female characters—and thus can be read as a feminist text. Perhaps more importantly, Walcott’s illumination of the feminine in the context of masculine discourses ties into what is seen by critics to be his larger, overall project: bringing together ostensibly opposed discourses. For at work in Walcott’s treatment of gender, we can see what Pollard calls Walcott’s “method of bringing together diverse fragments…in order to create a new…whole cultural identity” (Pollard 201). Walcott does with the feminine what he does on a larger scale with the Caribbean: much as he integrates the Caribbean with the classical, he reanimates the feminine in the masculine, creating a wholly new discourse that borders on the androgynous. By breaking down barriers between ostensible opposites and integrating them, Walcott implies that all supposed opposites can be transformed and held in a single vision—the Caribbean and the classical, the male and the female, even, as Joyce says, “the living and the dead” (Joyce 223). Walcott has described his project in just these Joycean terms: “What keeps me awake,” he says, “is tribute—to the dead” (Lorenzo 709). Walcott writes as much for the dead as for the living, and as much for the feminist as for the modernist. Omeros’s feminism may be latent—even dead—but it can be readily brought to life.

WORKS CITED

Breslin, Paul. Nobody’s Nation: Reading Derek Walcott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Brown, Robert, and Cheryl Johnson. “Thinking Poetry: An Interview with Derek Walcott.” Conversations with Derek Walcott. Ed. William Baer. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1996. 175-188.

Burnett, Paula. Derek Walcott: Politics and Poetics. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2000.

Joyce, James. “The Dead.” Dubliners. London: Penguin, 1976. 176-223.

Pollard, Charles W. “Traveling with Joyce: Derek Walcott’s Discrepant Cosmopolitan Modernism.” Twentieth-Century Literature 47.2 (2001): 197-216.

Savory, Elaine. “Value Judgments on Art and the Question of Macho Attitudes: the Case of Derek Walcott.” Postcolonial Literatures: Achebe, Ngugi, Desai, Walcott. Eds. Michael Parker and Roger Starkey. London: MacMillan Press Ltd., 1995. 245-258.

Sjöberg, Leif. “An Interview with Derek Walcott.” Conversations with Derek Walcott. Ed. William Baer. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1996. 79-85.

Thomas, Lorenzo. “Conversations with Derek Walcott.” African American Review 33.4 (1999): 708-710.

Walcott, Derek. Omeros. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1992.

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