Two Homers, Three Helens and a Sailboat on Blue Water
It may be true that there is no hunting like the hunting of men. But that is a small thing compared to the hunting of one’s ghosts. Or the hunt for one’s self, which is harder still.
I first thought seriously about the hunting of men during the search for newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. I was very young and very green, and I covered the story for the CBS television station in San Francisco. We were all interested in the hunt for Patty and her kidnappers back then. At the time, it was called the story of the century, having surpassed the Lindbergh baby kidnapping of 1932 in the public mind. That is what happens when four decades pass between notorious events. The public mind shifts. Hardly anyone remembers the past. Fewer still learn from it.
It was not up to me to find the heiress or her abductors. My job was to wear nice clothes and wait in an RV parked outside the Hearst mansion in Hillsborough, California. Sooner or later, the people who were hunting for Patty—the FBI and the police—would find her, dead or alive, and make some kind of statement in front of the family home. All I had to do was appear on camera each night and say something—anything—to keep the story alive.
Except for the extra income and attention that came from an assignment like this, it was the occupational equivalent of a quarantine. One afternoon, in order to pass the time, I picked up a magazine and read a reprint of “On the Blue Water,” Ernest Hemingway’s Gulf Stream Letter of April, 1936. That’s where he talks about the hunting of men. And how once you get a taste for it, you never really care for anything else thereafter.
You have to admire the piece, whether you like this kind of talk or not, because this particular Gulf Stream Letter contains a nugget of something greater than itself, the anecdote that eventually became The Old Man and the Sea.
And if you are a young reporter writing piffle about a rich white girl when hundreds of black and brown girls get raped or go missing every day with nary a thought for their whereabouts or well-being, you realize reading Hemingway that you are wasting your time. And if you don’t do something to change your life, you may wind up with a fair amount of money some day—but no soul.
But as for the hunting of men. Or elephants. Or gigantic fish that jump 53 times while tethered to your line. That is for people like Hemingway and others who find pleasure in such things. I live for that other hunt. The search for the self, the Big Game beyond big-game hunting.
Which is how I wound up in the Caribbean recently, four decades after the abduction of Patty Hearst, having arrived through extraordinary circumstance aboard the Royal Clipper, a stunning replica of a 1902 Flying P-liner windjammer and currently the longest sailing vessel in the world. Although we visit Barbados, Grenada, Martinique, Tobago Cays, Union Island, Bequia, and St. Vincent, I am most interested in St. Lucia. Lured to her shores by the two Homers. And the three Helens.
The first of these is the American painter Winslow Homer. Shortly after I said goodbye to the Patty Hearst story and all that, I discovered that Art can provide a roadmap to the self. Not all art can do this, nor every artist. But if you start hunting in earnest, you eventually catch the scent of the tracks left behind for you. In Winslow Homer’s Caribbean paintings, especially The Gulf Stream, I caught a whiff of my own story. What that story was and how it would unfold was unclear to me. But that’s what happens when you go hunting for the self. You pick up the scent and follow it. Regardless of what it looks like to everyone else.
It turns out I wasn’t the only one who found resonance in Homer's Gulf Stream. Another man of color, whose roots were English, Dutch and African, also caught the scent in that painting and followed it in.
I caught the light on green water as salt and clear
as the islands.
Then I saw him. Achille! My main man, my nigger!
circled by chain-sawing sharks; the ropes in his neck
turned his head towards Africa in The Gulf Stream,
which luffed him there, forever, between our island
and the coast of Guinea, fixed in the tribal dream,
in the light that entered another Homer’s hand,
it’s breeze lifting the canvas from the museum.
- Derek Walcott, Omeros
This is where the second Homer comes in, beckoning siren-like to St. Lucia. This second Homer is the blind author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, whose ancient story of the Trojan War is reborn as a battle between two St. Lucia fishermen in Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros (the Greek word for Homer). But there’s more to his story than that. There is the lasting wound of colonialism. The generational harm done to people of color. The destruction of nature. The haunted emptiness of white folks stuck in their own bleak history. The voice of a black exile, working hard to forge an Art in the service of his people.
It was these two Homers, the painter and the poet, who came with me to St. Lucia Bringing the three Helens with them.
The first of these beauties is black. She wears a yellow dress, a hand-me-down from the white woman she works for. This is the Helen the two fishermen, Achille and Hector, fight over in Walcott’s long poem. The second Helen is the one whose face launched a thousand ships during the Trojan War, and in whose shadow Walcott’s characters act out their fates like playthings of the gods. Finally, there is the island of St. Lucia herself, which is sometimes known as Helen because the French and English fought over her for 150 years.
I am unaware of this nickname for the island until Kelvin tells me so. He is our guide from Marigot Bay to a fishing village where Hector and Achille might have fought, to the steady climb into the rainforest. We ride facing one another in an open 4x4 that makes its way along the winding narrow road like a Kundalini serpent slowly opening the chakras.
From time to time, the trees—those gods killed by axe murderers in the opening scene of Omeros—disappear long enough for me to see the Royal Clipper anchored in the harbor down below. It’s a real beauty and a lovely way to cruise the Caribbean. Only 205 passengers on this trip. Hardy souls, mostly from Great Britain, who’ve been with me ever since Barbados a few days ago. You have to like sailing to choose this kind of cruise. For someone like me, who lived on a sailboat in the islands between Seattle and British Columbia for five years, a trip like this is Valhalla.
Some of the people here in St. Lucia remind me of my Afro-Creole heritage in New Orleans. Their faces call to mind uncles, aunts and cousins. The ones who survived Katrina. And those who remain in this life only through the memories of those left behind. I hear their voices in the St. Lucian patois, though Kelvin says the two dialects are different. “Nevertheless, we understand each other,” he says.
Another thing we understand is what it took to get this far. From slavery and colonial rule to independence. It feels good to visit island-nations governed by black people.
And somewhere on St. Lucia, there is a a single mother who works as a schoolteacher and a seamstress. She has three children and very little money. One day, her son comes to her with a problem. He writes poems. Some of them have been published in the local newspaper since he was a boy. She loves her son and is proud of him. Now, at age 19, he wants to publish his poems in a book. That is the problem. What he has in mind will cost two hundred precious dollars in the currency of the late 1940s, money his mother does not have. And yet. Somehow, she comes up with the money. When the poems are published, he sells enough copies to pay her back. The boy’s name is Derek Walcott. Years later, he wins the Nobel Prize in literature. Also the MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “genius” award. Receives an OBE, Order of the British Empire. And many other honors. Most scholars agree that Omeros is his greatest achievement.
When people think of him these days, they think about all these accolades. They forget that he didn’t start out with a Nobel Prize. Somebody had to believe in him enough to go out on a limb. And even after that, he still had to row that small boat through the hurricane-whipped sea. The lonely black body of The Gulf Stream, collapsed in exhaustion in Winslow Homer's After the Hurricane. “Achille! My nigger.”
Derek Walcott died in March of 2017 at the age of 87. He is gone from this planet now. So is the mother who found the $200 miracle that made his first book possible. If you look, you cannot find them. But I tell you they are still here.
And perhaps because of them, it is here in St. Lucia that I find another whiff of the scent I’ve been following for some time. It’s here that I’m reminded of my grandmother’s pink, green-shuttered house on Columbus Street in New Orleans. And the hurricanes that took away our lights on summer nights. The dark, musty rooms lit by oil lanterns and candlesticks. The sound of my grandmother’s voice telling stories of the ones who came before. Souls who were gone before I was born. Ghosts brought to life through her words. And who rattle around inside me, deep within the double-helix of my DNA.
These are the ghosts I search for. The ones who point the way to a self that is both of them and not of them. The watcher. The witness. The writer. The one and only Me.
Isn't it funny how travel can open the door to a place that was close at hand all along?
I like big books, and I cannot lie. My background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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