115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Derek Walcott’s Poetics of Naming and Epistemologies of Place in Omeros

Janet Graham, University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa

In this paper, I argue that Derek Walcott settles his quarrel with the colonial narrative of Caribbean history by complicating naming practices reliant upon Judeo-Christian origin myths and through poetic and narrative disruption and invention in Omeros. Employing Édouard Glissant’s theory of relationality and the Kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiian) concept of Wahi Pana (storied place), I show how Walcott decolonizes epistemologies of place in his epic.

Proposal: 

Below I outline my reading of Derek Walcott’s Omeros as a relational critique of colonial representations of the Caribbean and the “New World” that recovers non-territorial and layered naming practices and alternative epistemologies of place. Derek Walcott locates the potential for poetic disruption of the colonial historical practices of naming through his deconstruction of the myths of origin implicated in the concept of Adamic man, but also by including multiple names for the island including “Iounalao” or the Aruac word meaning, “Where the iguana is found” (Walcott 4) and “St. Lucia,” (Walcott 23) the name on contemporary maps. Throughout the poem these names compete with references to the “horned” island (Walcott 40), a name that refers to the island’s shape. However, none of these names for the island achieve dominance. By referring to multiple names for the island and destabilizing the naming of people and animals on the island, he opens up the possibility of engaging alternative epistemologies of place, each of which entails different understandings of history, to create alternative naming practices and construct counter-narratives to the historical record written by empire. His use of relationality as theorized by Édouard Glissant connects victims of colonial erasures through the rhizomatic rootedness of the Atlantic triangular slave trade. When Walcott narrates the story of place for the island of his birth, he locates the absent presence of those lost through the multiple genocides of first inhabitants and Africans who died on slave ships and points particularly to the loss of the Aruac language and the lost connections of African slaves to their languages and homes through the violence of colonialism and slavery. Claiming the possibilities of rhizomatic rootedness, I invoke Wahi Pana or the storied place, a concept used by Kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiians), as discussed by Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua to call attention to Walcott’s project of constructing decolonized narratives of his home island. According to Hawaiian epistemology, storied places are sacred sites with power derived from the events chronicled there. Therefore, the concept of the storied place allows for the precise identification and connection to place independent of arbitrary colonial naming. 

To conclude my discussion of Derek Walcott’s epic, I braid his critique of colonial narratives with his decolonizing naming practices in my analysis of the praise song that functions as the climax in the final book of Omeros. Walcott sings a relational praise song honoring the island by describing it as a storied place through a layering of its histories and names along with stories that celebrate the life lived on and through the land by all of its inhabitants. Taken as a whole, the song follows the arc of the poem through conflicts over naming, disruptions to colonial and Adamic naming through poetic intervention, and narration of histories and presences that have been buried, lost, or forgotten. I argue that Walcott decolonizes the representation of his birthplace by narrating a relational story of the island, connecting it to the histories of genocides and colonialism but also the experience of living on the island and inhabiting its many names and stories.