When Black Helen Weaves
Following from Helen’s capacity to navigate invisibly through overt networks of power and subtly challenge them in her own mysterious ways, aside from being renowned for her beauty, Helen is also a very attractive figure for post-colonial literature where hegemonic structures are being reconfigured. Particularly striking is when the popular imagery of Helen as White is subverted. An instance of this is the depiction of a Black, St Lucian Helen in Derek Walcott’s Omeros alongside familiar names like Archille and Hector within his epic poem which loosely echoes The Iliad.
Echoing the use of textiles to present conflicting narratives is the confusion surrounding Helen’s dress in Omeros where differing accounts on the yellow frock she dons is presented by the many characters over the course of Walcott’s poem. Of note is Helen’s interactions with the retired English officer Major Plunkett and his wife Maud, who she works for as their family’s housemaid. While Maud refers to the dress as stolen (Omeros, 5.3), Helen retorts her by claiming that it was gifted (Omeros, 10.1). Further complicating this clash in accounts is Plunkett’s lust for Helen (Omeros, 18.1) and also Maud’s jealousy and fear of Helen (Omeros, 23.3 and 33.3) which makes both accounts seem unreliable due to the emotional baggage they carry.
Above and beyond that, the dress also appears to have mystical significance. The dress is notably referred to as the dress with “an empire’s tag on it” through Plunkett’s conflation of Helen with the island and his obsession with history (Omeros, 10.1). By invoking the image of imperialism, the dress takes on a greater significance through the broad allusions to the history of slavery underpinning the cotton industry made. Furthermore, the dress also becomes shrouded with a ritualistic presence as Archille puts it on in his annual Boxing Day drag performance (Omeros, 55.1).
Building upon the links between textile and a physical, embodied experience, Walcott also depicts Helen weaving though the materials she uses are not what we would typically expect. In Chapter 6, Section 3, Walcott interestingly demonstrates the economic significance of weaving to Helen’s livelihood by showing her braid a tourist’s hair into corn-rows. Considering the central role weaving plays in the depiction of women, the choice to depict her weaving, only through an act as intimate as the braiding of someone else’s hair appears to be a further comment on St Lucia’s entanglement with tourism and its exploitative impact. This is of course, not a standalone image for the very first line of Omeros, is addressed towards tourists by Philoctetes (Omeros, 1.1). Similar to Helen, Philoctetes appears to cleverly subvert the power dynamics between the local and the foreign through the use of their bodies. Following from this, we eventually see the damage caused by the tourists through the rage Achille exhibits when he refuses to pose for their pictures (Omeros, 69.1).
Mirroring this is also the weaving that goes directly into the formation of Omeros itself and how it works as a “cross-cultural fabric of postcolonial poetry”. This is especially important given the close semantic connexion between weaving and literary composition in Latin, French, and English, since textum, texte, and text all derive from tegere, “to weave”. In this regard, Omeros structurally embodies the spirit of weaving as suggested by the use of tercets, being a poetic unit of three lines, which echoes the braiding and weaving intrinsic to fabric making. However, the intricacy of this tapestry can also be observed from Walcott’s creative use of meter and rhyme structures unlike the formulaic rigidity of Dante’s terza rima rhyming verse stanza used in the Divine Comedy and the fixed number of lines and meter within each canto. Nonetheless, an unravelling of the tercets can also be observed as the narrative develops. Particularly, this play with structure climaxes in Book 4, as Chapter 33, Section 3 explores the notion of home and the “house” in rhyming couplets instead. A stark departure from the woven lines of threes from before, this change of structure brings to mind the image of unwound threads, ready for weaving once again after the deconstruction of the tapestry that took place as Achille journeys through his cultural history. While the subsequent section returns to the use of tercets, a further unravelling can be observed once again. This time, the displacement of the overarching structure occurs in tandem with the poem’s refutation of the efforts made by Plunkett and the Narrator in conflating metaphor with history in relation to Helen.
“There, in her head of ebony, there was no real need for the historian’s remorse, nor for literature’s. Why not see Helen as the sun saw her, with no Homeric shadow”
Omeros, Chapter 54, Section 2
Given Walcott’s call to see Helen “as the sun [sees] her, with no Homeric shadow”, the merits of considering Omeros’ mythic parallels to the Homeric Helen has to be made. Instead of reading it as a rejection altogether, Walcott’s scepticism can be seen as an encouragement to critically engage with the mythic dimension. After all, Walcott’s Helen does appear to exhibit supernatural qualities as her very long pregnancy (Omeros, 74.2) would suggest as does the perceptions of her as both eternal (Omeros, 33.3) and immortal (Omeros, 63.2).
“I walked like a Helen among their dead warriors”
Omeros, Chapter 63, Section 2
In light of the enigma that the Homeric Helen presents, the use of Black Helen and her yellow dress as an allusion to St Lucia is necessarily poignant. By building upon the power obscured within the representations of the Homeric Helen and transforming her into a force capable of dismantling both myth and history, Walcott swiftly demonstrates how she can be engaged as a device to demonstrate how the empire writes back and gives voice to itself in response to the colonial experience.