The conch shell’s invocation

The conch shell’s invocation

Two brief selections today that caught my eye. I’m mesmerized at how Walcott plays with words and images, dances between his native Caribbean and Homer’s epic world. It’s almost as if his poem is a palimpsest written on top of Homer, the remembered lines of the ancient epic dancing faintly under Walcott’s bold lines. It’s literary and self aware and yet has such a playfulness to it that it doesn’t seem ponderous at all.

O open this day with the conch’s moan, Omeros,
as you did in my boyhood, when I was a noun
gently exhaled from the palate of the sunrise.

A lizard on the sea-wall darted its question
at the waking sea, and a net of golden moss
brightened the reef, which the sails of their far canoes

avoided. 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, that Cyclops whose blind eye
shut from the sunlight. Then the canoes were galleys
over which a frigate sawed its scythed wings slowly.

In you the seeds of grey almonds guessed a tree’s shape,
and the grape leaves rusted like serrated islands,
and the blind lighthouse, sensing the edge of a cape,

paused like a giant, a marble cloud in his hands,
to hurl its boulder that splashed into phosphorus
stars; then a black fisherman, his stubbled chin coarse

as a dry sea-urchin’s, hoisted his flour-sack
sail on its bamboo spar, and scanned the opening line
of our epic horizon. . .

. . . I said, “Omeros,”

and O was the conch-shell’s invocation, mer was
both mother and sea in our Antillean patois,
os a grey bone, and the white surf as it crashes.

and spreads its sibilant collar on a lace shore.
Omeros was the crunch of dry leaves, and the washes
that echoed from a cave-mouth when the tide has ebbed.

The name stayed in my mouth….

from Omeros by Derek Walcott, Chapter 2

In the first section when he says, “I was a noun gently exhaled from the palate of the sunrise,” I’m somehow put in mind of Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill.

I really like the image, “the sea’s parchment atlas,” it brings to mind the joy of tracing the places in a book onto a map, connecting the geography of the imagined and the real.

“scanned the opening line
of our epic horizon” just sends chills down my spine.

In the second section, where he’s reveling in the sounds of the name, puts me in mind of some of Seamus Heaney’s verses or maybe Margaret Atwood. I love the physicality of that final line, “the name stayed in my mouth.”

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  • Wow — it’s so dense. I am habituated, for efficiency inmy rather rushed existence, to reading very quickly, grasping the overall meanings and then — if it’s worth it– *maybe* going back to pay the proper attention to parts that I want to understand. This piece practically forced me to slow down and take it in one phrase at a time. A skim couldn’t catch a single strand, other than an intriguing sense of depth and flashing images.

    • Yes, that’s exactly what I’m finding. When I tried to read it before, years ago, I was trying to make a single quick reading do and I quickly got lost and fell away. Certain images attracted me, but I didn’t slow down enough to really savor them and to see what it was that Walcott was doing with them.