Derek Alton Walcott was a Saint Lucian poet and playwright. He received the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature. He was the University of Alberta’s first distinguished scholar in residence, where he taught undergraduate and graduate writing courses.
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Famous Derek Walcott Poems
Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
Those five or six young guys
lunched on the stoop
that oven-hot summer night
whistled me over. Nice
and friendly. So, I stop.
MacDougal or Christopher
Street in chains of light.
A summer festival. Or some
saint’s. I wasn’t too far from
home, but not too bright
for a nigger, and not too dark.
I figured we were all
one, wop, nigger, jew,
besides, this wasn’t Central Park.
I’m coming on too strong? You figure
right! They beat this yellow nigger
black and blue.
Yeah. During all this, scared
on case one used a knife,
I hung my olive-green, just-bought
sports coat on a fire plug.
I did nothing. They fought
each other, really. Life
gives them a few kcks,
that’s all. The spades, the spicks.
My face smashed in, my bloddy mug
pouring, my olive-branch jacket saved
from cuts and tears,
I crawled four flights upstairs.
Sprawled in the gutter, I
remember a few watchers waved
loudly, and one kid’s mother shouting
like ‘Jackie’ or ‘Terry,’
‘now that’s enough!’
It’s nothing really.
They don’t get enough love.
You know they wouldn’t kill
you. Just playing rough,
like young Americans will.
Still it taught me somthing
about love. If it’s so tough,
Schizophrenic, wrenched by two styles,
one a hack’s hired prose, I earn
me exile. I trudge this sickle, moonlit beach for miles,
to slough off
this live of ocean that’s self-love.
To change your language you must change your life.
I cannot right old wrongs.
Waves tire of horizon and return.
Gulls screech with rusty tongues
Above the beached, rotting pirogues,
they were a venomous beaked cloud at Charlotteville.
One I thought love of country was enough,
now, even if I chose, there is no room at the trough.
I watch the best minds rot like dogs
for scraps of flavour.
I am nearing middle
age, burnt skin
peels from my hand like paper, onion-thin,
like Peer Gynt’s riddle.
At heart there is nothing, not the dread
of death. I know to many dead.
They’re all familiar, all in character,
even how they died. On fire,
the flesh no longer fears that furnace mouth
that kiln or ashpit of the sun,
nor this clouding, unclouding sickle moon
withering this beach again like a blank page.
All its indifference is a different rage.
Koening Of The River
Koening knew now there was no one on the river.
Entering its brown mouth choking with lilies
and curtained with midges, Koenig poled the shallop
past the abandoned ferry and the ferry piles
coated with coal dust. Staying aboard, he saw, up
in a thick meadow, a sand-colored mule,
untethered, with no harness, and no signs
of habitation round the ruined factory wheel
locked hard in rust, and through whose spokes the vines
of wild yam leaves leant from overweight;
the wild bananas in the yellowish sunlight
were dugged like aching cows with unmilked fruit.
This was the last of the productive mines.
Only the vegetation here looked right.
A crab of pain scuttled shooting up his foot
and fastened on his neck, at the brain’s root.
He felt his reason curling back like parchment
in this fierce torpor. Well, he no longer taxed
and tired what was left of his memory;
he should thank heaven he had escaped the sea,
and anyway, he had demanded to be sent
here with the others – why get this river vexed
with his complaints? Koenig wanted to sing,
suddenly, if only to keep the river company –
this was a river, and Koenig, his name meant King.
They had all caught the missionary fever:
they were prepared to expiate the sins
os savages, to tame them as he would tame this river
subtly, as it flowed, accepting its bends;
he had seen how other missionaries met their ends –
swinging in the wind, like a dead clapper when
a bell is broken, if that sky was a bell –
for treating savages as if they were men,
and frightening them with talk of Heaven and Hell.
But I have forgotten our journey’s origins,
mused Koenig, and our purpose. He knew it was noble,
based on some phrase, forgotten, from the Bible,
but he felt bodiless, like a man stumbling from
the pages of a novel, not a forest,
written a hundred years ago. He stroked his uniform,
clogged with the hooked burrs that had tried
to pull him, like the other drowning hands whom
his panic abandoned. The others had died,
like real men, by death. I, Koenig, am a ghost,
ghost-king of rivers. Well, even ghosts must rest.
If he knew he was lost he was not lost.
It was when you pretended that you were a fool.
He banked and leaned tiredly on the pole.
If I’m a character called Koenig, then I
shall dominate my future like a fiction
in which there is a real river and real sky,
so I’m not really tired, and should push on.
The lights between the leaves were beautiful,
and, as in that far life, now he was grateful
for any pool of light between the dull, usual
clouds of life: a sunspot haloed his tonsure;
silver and copper coins danced on the river;
his head felt warm – the light danced on his skull
like a benediction. Koenig closed his eyes,
and he felt blessed. It made direction sure.
He leant on the pole. He must push on some more.
He said his name. His voice sounded German,
then he said ‘river’, but what was German
if he alone could hear it? Ich spreche Deutsch
sounded as genuine as his name in English,
Koenig in Deutsch, and, in English, King.
Did the river want to be called anything?
He asked the river. The river said nothing.
Around the bend the river poured its silver
like some remorseful mine, giving and giving
everything green and white: white sky, white
water, and the dull green like a drumbeat
of the slow-sliding forest, the green heat;
then, on some sandbar, a mirage ahead:
fabric of muslin sails, spiderweb rigging,
a schooner, foundered on black river mud,
was rising slowly up from the riverbed,
and a top-hatted native reading an inverted
‘Where’s our Queen?’ Koenig shouted.
‘Where’s our Kaiser?’
The nigger disappeared.
Koenig felt that he himself was being read
like the newspaper or a hundred-year-old novel.
‘The Queen dead! Kaiser dead!’ the voices shouted.
And it flashed through him those trunks were not wood
but that the ghosts of slaughtered Indians stood
there in the mangrroves, their eyes like fireflies
in the green dark, and that like hummingbirds
they sailed rather than ran between the trees.
The river carried him past his shouted words.
The schooner had gone down without a trace.
‘There was a time when we ruled everything,’
Koenig sang to his corrugated white reflection.
‘The German Eagle and the British Lion,
we ruled worlds wider than this river flows,
worlds with dyed elephants, with tassled howdahs,
tigers that carried the striped shade when they rose
from their palm coverts; men shall not see these days
again; our flags sank with the sunset on the dhows
of Egypt; we ruled rivers as huge as the Nile,
the Ganges, and the Congo, we tamed, we ruled
you when our empires reached their blazing peak.’
This was a small creek somewhere in the world,
never mind where – victory was in sight.
Koenig laughed and spat in the brown creek.
The mosquitoes now were singing to the night
that rose up from the river, the fog uncurled
under the mangroves. Koenig clenched each fist
around his barge-pole scepter, as a mist
rises from the river and the page goes white.
Man, I suck me tooth when I hear
How dem croptime fiddlers lie,
And de wailing, kiss-me-arse flutes
That bring water to me eye!
Oh, when I t’ink how from young
I wasted time at de fetes,
I could bawl in a red-eyed rage
For desire turned to regret,
Not knowing the truth that I sang
At parang and la commette.
Boy, every damned tune them tune
Of love that go last forever
Is the wax and the wane of the moon
Since Adam catch body-fever.
I old, so the young crop won’t
Have these claws to reap their waist,
But I know ‘do more’ from ‘don’t’
Since the grave cry out ‘Make haste!’
This banjo world have one string
And all man does dance to that tune:
That love is a place in the bush
With music grieving from far,
As you look past her shoulder and see
Like her one tear afterwards
The falling of a fixed star.
Yound men does bring love to disgrace
With remorseful, regretful words,
When flesh upon flesh was the tune
Since the first cloud raise up to disclose
The breast of the naked moon
In The Virgins
You can’t put in the ground swell of the organ
from the Christiansted, St.Croix, Anglican Church
behind the paratrooper’s voice: ‘Turned cop
after Vietnam. I made thirty jumps.’
Bells punish the dead street and pigeons lurch
from the stone belfry, opening their chutes,
circling until the rings of ringing stop.
‘Salud!’ The paratrooper’s glass is raised.
The congregation rises to its feet
like a patrol, with scuffling shoes and boots,
repeating orders as the organ thumps:
‘Praise Ye the Lord. The Lord’s name be praised.’
You cannot hear, beyond the quiet harbor,
the breakers cannonading on the bruised
horizon, or the charter engines gunning for
Buck Island. The only war here is a war
of silence between blue sky and sea,
and just one voice, the marching choir’s, is raised
to draft new conscripts with the ancient cry
of ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers,’ into pews
half-empty still, or like a glass, half-full.
Pinning itself to a cornice, a gull
hangs like a medal from the serge-blue sky.
Are these boats all? Is the blue water all?
The rocks surpliced with lace where they are moored,
dinghy, catamaran, and racing yawl,
nodding to the ground swell of ‘Praise the Lord’?
Wesley and Watts, their evangelical light
lanced down the mine shafts to our chapel pew,
its beam gritted with motes of anthracite
that drifted on us in our chapel benches:
from God’s slow-grinding mills in Lancashire,
ash on the dead mired in Flanders’ trenches,
as a gray drizzle now defiles the view
of this blue harbor, framed in windows where
two yellow palm fronds, jerked by the wind’s rain,
agree like horses’ necks, and nodding bear,
slow as a hearse, a haze of tasseled rain,
and, as the weather changes in a child,
the paradisal day outside grows dark,
the yachts flutter like moths in a gray jar,
the martial voices fade in thunder, while
across the harbor, like a timid lure,
a rainbow casts its seven-colored arc.
Tonight, now Sunday has been put to rest.
Altar lights ride the black glass where the yachts
stiffly repeat themselves and phosphoresce
with every ripple – the wide parking-lots
of tidal affluence – and every mast
sways the night’s dial as its needle veers
to find the station which is truly peace.
Like neon lasers shot across the bars
discos blast out the music of the spheres,
and, one by one, science infects the stars
This coral’s hape ecohes the hand
It hollowed. Its
Immediate absence is heavy. As pumice,
As your breast in my cupped palm.
Sea-cold, its nipple rasps like sand,
Its pores, like yours, shone with salt sweat.
Bodies in absence displace their weight,
And your smooth body, like none other,
Creates an exact absence like this stoneSet on a table with a whitening rack
Of souvenirs. It dares my hand
To claim what lovers’ hands have never known:
The nature of the body of another
Better a jungle in the head
than rootless concrete.
Better to stand bewildered
by the fireflies’ crooked street;
winter lamps do not show
where the sidewalk is lost,
nor can these tongues of snow
speak for the Holy Ghost;
the self-increasing silence
of words dropped from a roof
points along iron railings,
direction, in not proof.
But best is this night surf
with slow scriptures of sand,
that sends, not quite a seraph,
but a late cormorant,
whose fading cry propels
through phosphorescent shoal
what, in my childhood gospels,
used to be called the Soul.
The Star-Apple Kingdom
There were still shards of an ancient pastoral
in those shires of the island where the cattle drank
their pools of shadow from an older sky,
surviving from when the landscape copied such objects as
‘Herefords at Sunset in the valley of the Wye.’
The mountain water that fell white from the mill wheel
sprinkling like petals from the star-apple trees,
and all of the windmills and sugar mills moved by mules
on the treadmill of Monday to Monday, would repeat
in tongues of water and wind and fire, in tongues
of Mission School pickaninnies, like rivers remembering
their source, Parish Trelawny, Parish St David, Parish
St Andrew, the names afflicting the pastures,
the lime groves and fences of marl stone and the cattle
with a docile longing, an epochal content.
And there were, like old wedding lace in an attic,
among the boas and parasols and the tea-colored
daguerreotypes, hints of an epochal happiness
as ordered and infinite to the child
as the great house road to the Great House
down a perspective of casuarinas plunging green manes
in time to the horses, an orderly life
reduced by lorgnettes day and night, one disc the sun,
the other the moon, reduced into a pier glass:
nannies diminished to dolls, mahogany stairways
no larger than those of an album in which
the flash of cutlery yellows, as gamboge as
the piled cakes of teatime on that latticed
bougainvillea verandah that looked down toward
a prospect of Cuyp-like Herefords under a sky
lurid as a porcelain souvenir with these words:
‘Herefords at Sunset in the Valley of the Wye.’
Strange, that the rancor of hatred hid in that dream
of slow rivers and lily-like parasols, in snaps
of fine old colonial families, curled at the edge
not from age of from fire or the chemicals, no, not at all,
but because, off at its edges, innocently excluded
stood the groom, the cattle boy, the housemaid, the gardeners,
the tenants, the good Negroes down in the village,
their mouth in the locked jaw of a silent scream.
A scream which would open the doors to swing wildly
all night, that was bringing in heavier clouds,
more black smoke than cloud, frightening the cattle
in whose bulging eyes the Great House diminished;
a scorching wind of a scream
that began to extinguish the fireflies,
that dried the water mill creaking to a stop
as it was about to pronounce Parish Trelawny
all over, in the ancient pastoral voice,
a wind that blew all without bending anything,
neither the leaves of the album nor the lime groves;
blew Nanny floating back in white from a feather
to a chimerical, chemical pin speck that shrank
the drinking Herefords to brown porcelain cows
on a mantelpiece, Trelawny trembling with dusk,
the scorched pastures of the old benign Custos; blew
far the decent servants and the lifelong cook,
and shriveled to a shard that ancient pastoral
of dusk in a gilt-edged frame now catching the evening sun
in Jamaica, making both epochs one.
He looked out from the Great House windows on
clouds that still held the fragrance of fire,
he saw the Botanical Gardens officially drown
in a formal dusk, where governors had strolled
and black gardeners had smiled over glinting shears
at the lilies of parasols on the floating lawns,
the flame trees obeyed his will and lowered their wicks,
the flowers tightened their fists in the name of thrift,
the porcelain lamps of ripe cocoa, the magnolia’s jet
dimmed on the one circuit with the ginger lilies
and left a lonely bulb on the verandah,
and, had his mandate extended to that ceiling
of star-apple candelabra, he would have ordered
the sky to sleep, saying, I’m tired,
save the starlight for victories, we can’t afford it,
leave the moon on for one more hour,and that’s it.
But though his power, the given mandate, extended
from tangerine daybreaks to star-apple dusks,
his hand could not dam that ceaseless torrent of dust
that carried the shacks of the poor, to their root-rock music,
down the gullies of Yallahs and August Town,
to lodge them on thorns of maca, with their rags
crucified by cactus, tins, old tires, cartons;
from the black Warieka Hills the sky glowed fierce as
the dials of a million radios,
a throbbing sunset that glowed like a grid
where the dread beat rose from the jukebox of Kingston.
He saw the fountains dried of quadrilles, the water-music
of the country dancers, the fiddlers like fifes
put aside. He had to heal
this malarial island in its bath of bay leaves,
its forests tossing with fever, the dry cattle
groaning like winches, the grass that kept shaking
its head to remember its name. No vowels left
in the mill wheel, the river. Rock stone. Rock stone.
The mountains rolled like whales through phosphorous stars,
as he swayed like a stone down fathoms into sleep,
drawn by that magnet which pulls down half the world
between a star and a star, by that black power
that has the assassin dreaming of snow,
that poleaxes the tyrant to a sleeping child.
The house is rocking at anchor, but as he falls
his mind is a mill wheel in moonlight,
and he hears, in the sleep of his moonlight, the drowned
bell of Port Royal’s cathedral, sees the copper pennies
of bubbles rising from the empty eye-pockets
of green buccaneers, the parrot fish floating
from the frayed shoulders of pirates, sea horses
drawing gowned ladies in their liquid promenade
across the moss-green meadows of the sea;
he heard the drowned choirs under Palisadoes,
a hymn ascending to earth from a heaven inverted
by water, a crab climbing the steeple,
and he climbed from that submarine kingdom
as the evening lights came on in the institute,
the scholars lamplit in their own aquarium,
he saw them mouthing like parrot fish, as he passed
upward from that baptism, their history lessons,
the bubbles like ideas which he could not break:
Jamaica was captured by Penn and Venables,
Port Royal perished in a cataclysmic earthquake.
Before the coruscating faÃ§ades of cathedrals
from Santiago to Caracas, where penitential archbishops
washed the feet of paupers (a parenthetical moment
that made the Caribbean a baptismal font,
turned butterflies to stone, and whitened like doves
the buzzards circling municipal garbage),
the Caribbean was borne like an elliptical basin
in the hands of acolytes, and a people were absolved
of a history which they did not commit;
the slave pardoned his whip, and the dispossessed
said the rosary of islands for three hundred years,
a hymn that resounded like the hum of the sea
inside a sea cave, as their knees turned to stone,
while the bodies of patriots were melting down walls
still crusted with mute outcries of La Revolucion!
‘San Salvador, pray for us,St. Thomas, San Domingo,
ora pro nobis, intercede for us, Sancta Lucia
of no eyes,’ and when the circular chaplet
reached the last black bead of Sancta Trinidad
they began again, their knees drilled into stone,
where Colon had begun, with San Salvador’s bead,
beads of black colonies round the necks of Indians.
And while they prayed for an economic miracle,
ulcers formed on the municipal portraits,
the hotels went up, and the casinos and brothels,
and the empires of tobacco, sugar, and bananas,
until a black woman, shawled like a buzzard,
climbed up the stairs and knocked at the door
of his dream, whispering in the ear of the keyhole:
‘Let me in, I’m finished with praying, I’m the Revolution.
I am the darker, the older America.’
She was as beautiful as a stone in the sunrise,
her voice had the gutturals of machine guns
across khaki deserts where the cactus flower
detonates like grenades, her sex was the slit throat
of an Indian, her hair had the blue-black sheen of the crow.
She was a black umbrella blown inside out
by the wind of revolution, La Madre Dolorosa,
a black rose of sorrow, a black mine of silence,
raped wife, empty mother, Aztec virgin
transfixed by arrows from a thousand guitars,
a stone full of silence, which, if it gave tongue
to the tortures done in the name of the Father,
would curdle the blood of the marauding wolf,
the fountain of generals, poets, and cripples
who danced without moving over their graves
with each revolution; her Caesarean was stitched
by the teeth of machine guns,and every sunset
she carried the Caribbean’s elliptical basin
as she had once carried the penitential napkins
to be the footbath of dictators, Trujillo, Machado,
and those whose faces had yellowed like posters
on municipal walls. Now she stroked his hair
until it turned white, but she would not understand
that he wanted no other power but peace,
that he wanted a revolution without any bloodshed,
he wanted a history without any memory,
streets without statues,
and a geography without myth. He wanted no armies
but those regiments of bananas, thick lances of cane,
and he sobbed,’I am powerless, except for love.’
She faded from him, because he could not kill;
she shrunk to a bat that hung day and night
in the back of his brain. He rose in his dream.
In the Village
I came up out of the subway and there were
people standing on the steps as if they knew
something I didn’t. This was in the Cold War,
and nuclear fallout. I looked and the whole avenue
was empty, I mean utterly, and I thought,
The birds have abandoned our cities and the plague
of silence multiplies through their arteries, they fought
the war and they lost and there’s nothing subtle or vague
in this horrifying vacuum that is New York. I caught
the blare of a loudspeaker repeatedly warning
the last few people, maybe strolling lovers in their walk,
that the world was about to end that morning
on Sixth or Seventh Avenue with no people going to work
in that uncontradicted, horrifying perspective.
It was no way to die, but it’s also no way to live.
Well, if we burnt, it was at least New York.
Everybody in New York is in a sitcom.
I’m in a Latin American novel, one
in which an egret-haired viejo shakes with some
invisible sorrow, some obscene affliction,
and chronicles it secretly, till it shows in his face,
the parenthetical wrinkles confirming his fiction
to his deep embarrassment. Look, it’s
just the old story of a heart that won’t call it quits
whatever the odds, quixotic. It’s just one that’ll
break nobody’s heart, even if the grizzled colonel
pitches from his steed in a cavalry charge, in a battle
that won’t make him a statue. It is the hell
of ordinary, unrequited love. Watch these egrets
trudging the lawn in a dishevelled troop, white banners
trailing forlornly; they are the bleached regrets
of an old man’s memoirs, printed stanzas.
showing their hinged wings like wide open secrets.
Who has removed the typewriter from my desk,
so that I am a musician without his piano
with emptiness ahead as clear and grotesque
as another spring? My veins bud, and I am so
full of poems, a wastebasket of black wire.
The notes outside are visible; sparrows will
line antennae like staves, the way springs were,
but the roofs are cold and the great grey river
where a liner glides, huge as a winter hill,
moves imperceptibly like the accumulating
years. I have no reason to forgive her
for what I brought on myself. I am past hating,
past the longing for Italy where blowing snow
absolves and whitens a kneeling mountain range
outside Milan. Through glass, I am waiting
for the sound of a bird to unhinge the beginning
of spring, but my hands, my work, feel strange
without the rusty music of my machine. No words
for the Arctic liner moving down the Hudson, for the mange
of old snow moulting from the roofs. No poems. No birds.
The Sweet Life Café
If I fall into a grizzled stillness
sometimes, over the red-chequered tablecloth
outdoors of the Sweet Life Café, when the noise
of Sunday traffic in the Village is soft as a moth
working in storage, it is because of age
which I rarely admit to, or, honestly, even think of.
I have kept the same furies, though my domestic rage
is illogical, diabetic, with no lessening of love
though my hand trembles wildly, but not over this page.
My lust is in great health, but, if it happens
that all my towers shrivel to dribbling sand,
joy will still bend the cane-reeds with my pen’s
elation on the road to Vieuxfort with fever-grass
white in the sun, and, as for the sea breaking
in the gap at Praslin, they add up to the grace
I have known and which death will be taking
from my hand on this chequered tablecloth in this good place.
A Lesson for This Sunday
The growing idleness of summer grass
With its frail kites of furious butterflies
Requests the lemonade of simple praise
In scansion gentler than my hammock swings
And rituals no more upsetting than a
Black maid shaking linen as she sings
The plain notes of some Protestant hosanna—
Since I lie idling from the thought in things—
Or so they should, until I hear the cries
Of two small children hunting yellow wings,
Who break my Sabbath with the thought of sin.
Brother and sister, with a common pin,
Frowning like serious lepidopterists.
The little surgeon pierces the thin eyes.
Crouched on plump haunches, as a mantis prays
She shrieks to eviscerate its abdomen.
The lesson is the same. The maid removes
Both prodigies from their interest in science.
The girl, in lemon frock, begins to scream
As the maimed, teetering thing attempts its flight.
She is herself a thing of summery light,
Frail as a flower in this blue August air,
Not marked for some late grief that cannot speak.
The mind swings inward on itself in fear
Swayed towards nausea from each normal sign.
Heredity of cruelty everywhere,
And everywhere the frocks of summer torn,
The long look back to see where choice is born,
As summer grass sways to the scythe’s design.
[for Alix Walcott]
Between the vision of the Tourist Board and the true
Paradise lies the desert where Isaiah’s elations
force a rose from the sand. The thirty-third canto
cores the dawn clouds with concentric radiance,
the breadfruit opens its palms in praise of the bounty,
bois-pain, tree of bread, slave food, the bliss of John Clare,
torn, wandering Tom, stoat-stroker in his county
of reeds and stalk-crickets, fiddling the dank air,
lacing his boots with vines, steering glazed beetles
with the tenderest prods, knight of the cockchafer,
wrapped in the mists of shires, their snail-horned steeples
palms opening to the cupped pool—but his soul safer
than ours, though iron streams fetter his ankles.
Frost whitening his stubble, he stands in the ford
of a brook like the Baptist lifting his branches to bless
cathedrals and snails, the breaking of this new day,
and the shadows of the beach road near which my mother lies,
with the traffic of insects going to work anyway.
The lizard on the white wall fixed on the hieroglyph
of its stone shadow, the palms’ rustling archery,
the souls and sails of circling gulls rhyme with:
“In la sua volont è nostra pace,”
In His will is our peace. Peace in white harbours,
in marinas whose masts agree, in crescent melons
left all night in the fridge, in the Egyptian labours
of ants moving boulders of sugar, words in this sentence,
shadow and light, who live next door like neighbours,
and in sardines with pepper sauce. My mother lies
near the white beach stones, John Clare near the sea-almonds,
yet the bounty returns each daybreak, to my surprise,
to my surprise and betrayal, yes, both at once.
I am moved like you, mad Tom, by a line of ants;
I behold their industry and they are giants.
There on the beach, in the desert, lies the dark well
where the rose of my life was lowered, near the shaken plants,
near a pool of fresh tears, tolled by the golden bell
of allamanda, thorns of the bougainvillea, and that is
their bounty! They shine with defiance from weed and flower,
even those that flourish elsewhere, vetch, ivy, clematis,
on whom the sun now rises with all its power,
not for the Tourist Board or for Dante Alighieri,
but because there is no other path for its wheel to take
except to make the ruts of the beach road an allegory
of this poem’s career, of yours, that she died for the sake
of a crowning wreath of false laurel; so, John Clare, forgive me,
for this morning’s sake, forgive me, coffee, and pardon me,
milk with two packets of artificial sugar,
as I watch these lines grow and the art of poetry harden me
into sorrow as measured as this, to draw the veiled figure
of Mamma entering the standard elegiac.
No, there is grief, there will always be, but it must not madden,
like Clare, who wept for a beetle’s loss, for the weight
of the world in a bead of dew on clematis or vetch,
and the fire in these tinder-dry lines of this poem I hate
as much as I love her, poor rain-beaten wretch,
redeemer of mice, earl of the doomed protectorate
of cavalry under your cloak; come on now, enough!
In the bells of tree-frogs with their steady clamour
in the indigo dark before dawn, the fading morse
of fireflies and crickets, then light on the beetle’s armour,
and the toad’s too-late presages, nettles of remorse
that shall spring from her grave from the spade’s heartbreak.
And yet not to have loved her enough is to love more,
if I confess it, and I confess it. The trickle of underground
springs, the babble of swollen gulches under drenched ferns,
loosening the grip of their roots, till their hairy clods
like unclenching fists swirl wherever the gulch turns
them, and the shuddering aftermath bends the rods
of wild cane. Bounty in the ant’s waking fury,
in the snail’s chapel stirring under wild yams,
praise in decay and process, awe in the ordinary
in wind that reads the lines of the breadfruit’s palms
in the sun contained in a globe of the crystal dew,
bounty in the ants’ continuing a line of raw flour,
mercy on the mongoose scuttling past my door,
in the light’s parallelogram laid on the kitchen floor,
for Thine is the Kingdom, the Glory, and the Power,
the bells of Saint Clement’s in the marigolds on the altar,
in the bougainvillea’s thorns, in the imperial lilac
and the feathery palms that nodded at the entry
into Jerusalem, the weight of the world on the back
of an ass; dismounting, He left His cross there for sentry
and sneering centurion; then I believed in His Word,
in a widow’s immaculate husband, in pews of brown wood,
when the cattle-bell of the chapel summoned our herd
into the varnished stalls, in whose rustling hymnals I heard
the fresh Jacobean springs, the murmur Clare heard
of bounty abiding, the clear language she taught us,
“as the hart panteth,” at this, her keen ears pronged
while her three fawns nibbled the soul-freshening waters,
“as the hart panteth for the water-brooks” that belonged
to the language in which I mourn her now, or when
I showed her my first elegy, her husband’s, and then her own.
But can she or can she not read this? Can you read this,
Mamma, or hear it? If I took the pulpit, lay-preacher
like tender Clare, like poor Tom, so that look, Miss!
the ants come to you like children, their beloved teacher
Alix, but unlike the silent recitation of the infants,
the choir that Clare and Tom heard in their rainy county,
we have no solace but utterance, hence this wild cry.
Snails move into harbour, the breadfruit plants on the Bounty
will be heaved aboard, and the white God is Captain Bligh.
Across white feathery grave-grass the shadow of the soul
passes, the canvas cracks open on the cross-trees of the Bounty,
and the Trades lift the shrouds of the resurrected sail.
All move in their passage to the same mother-country,
the dirt-clawing weasel, the blank owl or sunning seal.
Faith grows mutinous. The ribbed body with its cargo
stalls in its doldrums, the God-captain is cast adrift
by a mutinous Christian, in the wake of the turning Argo
plants bob in the ocean’s furrows, their shoots dip and lift,
and the soul’s Australia is like the New Testament
after the Old World, the code of an eye for an eye;
the horizon spins slowly and Authority’s argument
diminishes in power, in the longboat with Captain Bligh.
This was one of your earliest lessons, how the Christ-Son
questions the Father, to settle on another island, haunted by Him,
by the speck of a raging deity on the ruled horizon,
diminishing in meaning and distance, growing more dim:
all these predictable passages that we first disobey
before we become what we challenged; but you never altered
your voice, either sighing or sewing, you would pray
to your husband aloud, pedalling the hymns we all heard
in the varnished pew: “There Is a Green Hill Far Away,”
“Jerusalem the Golden.” Your melody faltered
but never your faith in the bounty which is His Word.
All of these waves crepitate from the culture of Ovid,
its sibilants and consonants; a universal metre
piles up these signatures like inscriptions of seaweed
that dry in the pungent sun, lines ruled by mitre
and laurel, or spray swiftly garlanding the forehead
of an outcrop (and I hope this settles the matter
of presences). No soul was ever invented,
yet every presence is transparent; if I met her
(in her nightdress ankling barefoot, crooning to the shallows),
should I call her shadow that of a pattern invented
by Graeco-Roman design, columns of shadows
cast by the Forum, Augustan perspectives—
poplars, casuarina-colonnades, the in-and-out light of almonds
made from original Latin, no leaf but the olive’s?
Questions of pitch. Faced with seraphic radiance
(don’t interrupt!), mortals rub their skeptical eyes
that hell is a beach-fire at night where embers dance,
with temporal fireflies like thoughts of Paradise;
but there are inexplicable instincts that keep recurring
not from hope or fear only, that are real as stones,
the faces of the dead we wait for as ants are transferring
their cities, though we no longer believe in the shining ones.
I half-expect to see you no longer, then more than half,
almost never, or never then—there I have said it—
but felt something less than final at the edge of your grave,
some other something somewhere, equally dreaded,
since the fear of the infinite is the same as death,
unendurable brightness, the substantial dreading
its own substance, dissolving to gases and vapours,
like our dread of distance; we need a horizon,
a dividing line that turns the stars into neighbours
though infinity separates them, we can think of only one sun:
all I am saying is that the dread of death is in the faces
we love, the dread of our dying, or theirs;
therefore we see in the glint of immeasurable spaces
not stars or falling embers, not meteors, but tears.
The mango trees serenely rust when they are in flower,
nobody knows the name for that voluble cedar
whose bell-flowers fall, the pomme-arac purples its floor.
The blue hills in late afternoon always look sadder.
The country night waiting to come in outside the door;
the firefly keeps striking matches, and the hillside fumes
with a bluish signal of charcoal, then the smoke burns
into a larger question, one that forms and unforms,
then loses itself in a cloud, till the question returns.
Buckets clatter under pipes, villages begin at corners.
A man and his trotting dog come back from their garden.
The sea blazes beyond the rust roofs, dark is on us
before we know it. The earth smells of what’s done,
small yards brighten, day dies and its mourners
begin, the first wreath of gnats; this was when we sat down
on bright verandahs watching the hills die. Nothing is trite
once the beloved have vanished; empty clothes in a row,
but perhaps our sadness tires them who cherished delight;
not only are they relieved of our customary sorrow,
they are without hunger, without any appetite,
but are part of earth’s vegetal fury; their veins grow
with the wild mammy-apple, the open-handed breadfruit,
their heart in the open pomegranate, in the sliced avocado;
ground-doves pick from their palms; ants carry the freight
of their sweetness, their absence in all that we eat,
their savour that sweetens all of our multiple juices,
their faith that we break and chew in a wedge of cassava,
and here at first is the astonishment: that earth rejoices
in the middle of our agony, earth that will have her
for good: wind shines white stones and the shallows’ voices.
In spring, after the bear’s self-burial, the stuttering
crocuses open and choir, glaciers shelve and thaw,
frozen ponds crack into maps, green lances spring
from the melting fields, flags of rooks rise and tatter
the pierced light, the crumbling quiet avalanches
of an unsteady sky; the vole uncoils and the otter
worries his sleek head through the verge’s branches;
crannies, culverts, and creeks roar with wrist-numbing water.
Deer vault invisible hurdles and sniff the sharp air,
squirrels spring up like questions, berries easily redden,
edges delight in their own shapes (whoever their shaper).
But here there is one season, our viridian Eden
is that of the primal garden that engendered decay,
from the seed of a beetle’s shard or a dead hare
white and forgotten as winter with spring on its way.
There is no change now, no cycles of spring, autumn, winter,
nor an island’s perpetual summer; she took time with her;
no climate, no calendar except for this bountiful day.
As poor Tom fed his last crust to trembling birds,
as by reeds and cold pools John Clare blest these thin musicians,
let the ants teach me again with the long lines of words,
my business and duty, the lesson you taught your sons,
to write of the light’s bounty on familiar things
that stand on the verge of translating themselves into news:
the crab, the frigate that floats on cruciform wings,
and that nailed and thorn riddled tree that opens its pews
to the blackbird that hasn’t forgotten her because it sings.
In hill-towns, from San Fernando to Mayagüez,
the same sunrise stirred the feathered lances of cane
down the archipelago’s highways. The first breeze
rattled the spears and their noise was like distant rain
marching down from the hills, like a shell at your ears.
In the cool asphalt Sundays of the Antilles
the light brought the bitter history of sugar
across the squared fields, heightening towards harvest,
to the bleached flags of the Indian diaspora.
The drizzling light blew across the savannah
darkening the racehorses’ hides; mist slowly erased
the royal palms on the crests of the hills and the
hills themselves. The brown patches the horses had grazed
shone as wet as their hides. A skittish stallion
jerked at his bridle, marble-eyed at the thunder
muffling the hills, but the groom was drawing him in
like a fisherman, wrapping the slack line under
one fist, then with the other tightening the rein
and narrowing the circle. The sky cracked asunder
and a forked tree flashed, and suddenly that black rain
which can lose an entire archipelago
in broad daylight was pouring tin nails on the roof,
hammering the balcony. I closed the French window,
and thought of the horses in their stalls with one hoof
tilted, watching the ropes of rain. I lay in bed
with current gone from the bed-lamp and heard the roar
of wind shaking the windows, and I remembered
Achille on his own mattress and desperate Hector
trying to save his canoe, I thought of Helen
as my island lost in the haze, and I was sure
I’d never see her again. All of a sudden
the rain stopped and I heard the sluicing of water
down the guttering. I opened the window when
the sun came out. It replaced the tiny brooms
of palms on the ridges. On the red galvanized
roof of the paddock, the wet sparkled, then the grooms
led the horses over the new grass and exercised
them again, and there was a different brightness
in everything, in the leaves, in the horses’ eyes.
I smelt the leaves threshing at the top of the year
in green January over the orange villas
and military barracks where the Plunketts were,
the harbour flecked by the wind that comes with Christmas,
edged with the Arctic, that was christened Vent Noël;
it stayed until March and, with luck, until Easter.
It freshened the cedars, waxed the laurier-cannelle,
and hid the African swift. I smelt the drizzle
on the asphalt leaving the Morne, it was the smell
of an iron on damp cloth; I heard the sizzle
of fried jackfish in oil with their coppery skin;
I smelt ham studded with cloves, the crusted accra,
the wax in the varnished parlour: Come in. Come in,
the arm of the Morris chair sticky with lacquer;
I saw a sail going out and a sail coming in,
and a breeze so fresh it lifted the lace curtains
like a petticoat, like a sail towards Ithaca;
I smelt a dead rivulet in the clogged drains.
Ah, twin-headed January, seeing either tense:
a past, they assured us, born in degradation,
and a present that lifted us up with the wind’s
noise in the breadfruit leaves with such an elation
that it contradicts what is past! The cannonballs
of rotting breadfruit from the Battle of the Saints,
the asterisks of bulletholes in the brick walls
of the redoubt. I lived there with every sense.
I smelt with my eyes, I could see with my nostrils.
One side of the coast plunges its precipices
into the Atlantic. Turns require wide locks,
since the shoulder is sharp and the curve just misses
a long drop over the wind-bent trees and the rocks
between the trees. There is a wide view of Dennery,
with its stone church and raw ochre cliffs at whose base
the African breakers end. Across the flecked sea
whose combers veil and unveil the rocks with their lace
the next port is Dakar. The uninterrupted wind
thuds under the wings of frigates, you see them bent
from a force that has crossed the world, tilting to find
purchase in the sudden downdrafts of its current.
The breeze threshed the palms on the cool December road
where the Comet hurtled with empty leopard seats,
so fast a man on a donkey trying to read
its oncoming fiery sign heard only two thudding beats
from the up-tempo zouk that its stereo played
when it screeched round a bridge and began to ascend
away from the palm-fronds and their wickerwork shade
that left the windscreen clear as it locked round the bend,
where Hector suddenly saw the trotting piglet
and thought of Plunkett’s warning as he heard it screel
with the same sound that the tires of the Comet
made rounding the curve from the sweat-greased steering wheel.
The rear wheels spin to a dead stop, like a helm.
The piglet trots down the safer side of the road.
Lodged in their broken branches the curled letters flame.
Hector had both hands on the wheel. His head was bowed
under the swaying statue of the Madonna
of the Rocks, her smile swayed under the blue hood,
and when her fluted robe stilled, the smile stayed on her
dimpled porcelain. She saw, in the bowed man, the calm
common oval of prayer, the head’s usual angle
over the pew of the dashboard. Her lifted palm,
small as a doll’s from its cerulean mantle,
indicated that he had prayed enough to the lace
of foam round the cliff’s altar, that now, if he wished,
he could lift his head, but he stayed in the same place,
the way a man will remain when Mass is finished,
not unclenching his hands or freeing one to cross
forehead, heart, and shoulders swiftly and then kneel
facing the altar. He bowed in endless remorse,
for her mercy at what he had done to Achille,
his brother. But his arc was over, for the course
of every comet is such. The fated crescent
was printed on the road by the scorching tires.
A salt tear ran down the porcelain cheek and it went
in one slow drop to the clenched knuckle that still gripped
the wheel. On the flecked sea, the uninterrupted
wind herded the long African combers, and whipped
the small flag of the island on its silver spearhead.
Drivers leant over the rail. One seized my luggage
off the porter’s cart. The rest burst into patois,
with gestures of despair at the lost privilege
of driving me, then turned to other customers.
In the evening pastures horses grazed, their hides wet
with light that shot its lances over the combers.
I had the transport all to myself.
“You all set?
Good. A good pal of mine died in that chariot
of his called the Comet.”
He turned in the front seat,
spinning the air with his free hand. I sat, sprawled out
in the back, discouraging talk, with my crossed feet.
“You never know when, eh? I was at the airport
that day. I see him take off like a rocket.
I always said that thing have too much horsepower.
And so said, so done. The same hotel, chief, correct?”
I saw the coastal villages receding as
the highway’s tongue translated bush into forest,
the wild savannah into moderate pastures,
that other life going in its “change for the best,”
its peace paralyzed in a postcard, a concrete
future ahead of it all, in the cinder-blocks
of hotel development with the obsolete
craft of the carpenter, as I sensed, in the neat
marinas, the fisherman’s phantom. Old oarlocks
and rusting fretsaw. My craft required the same
crouching care, the same crabbed, natural devotion
of the hand that stencilled a flowered window-frame
or planed an elegant canoe; its time was gone
with the spirit in the wood, as wood grew obsolete
and plasterers smoothed the blank page of white concrete.
I watched the afternoon sea. Didn’t I want the poor
to stay in the same light so that I could transfix
them in amber, the afterglow of an empire,
preferring a shed of palm-thatch with tilted sticks
to that blue bus-stop? Didn’t I prefer a road
from which tracks climbed into the thickening syntax
of colonial travellers, the measured prose I read
as a schoolboy? That cove, with its brown shallows
there, Praslin? That heron? Had they waited for me
to develop my craft? Why hallow that pretence
of preserving what they left, the hypocrisy
of loving them from hotels, a biscuit-tin fence
smothered in love-vines, scenes to which I was attached
as blindly as Plunkett with his remorseful research?
Art is History’s nostalgia, it prefers a thatched
roof to a concrete factory, and the huge church
above a bleached village. The gap between the driver
and me increased when he said:
“The place changing, eh?”
where an old rumshop had gone, but not that river
with its clogged shadows. That would make me a stranger.
“All to the good,” he said. I said, “All to the good,”
then, “whoever they are,” to myself. I caught his eyes
in the mirror. We were climbing out of Micoud.
Hadn’t I made their poverty my paradise?
His back could have been Hector’s, ferrying tourists
in the other direction home, the leopard seat
scratching their damp backs like the fur-covered armrests.
He had driven his burnt-out cargo, tired of sweat,
who longed for snow on the moon and didn’t have to face
the heat of that sinking sun, who knew a climate
as monotonous as this one could only produce
from its unvarying vegetation flashes
of a primal insight like those red-pronged lilies
that shot from the verge, that their dried calabashes
of fake African masks for a fake Achilles
rattled with the seeds that came from other men’s minds.
So let them think that. Who needed art in this place
where even the old women strode with stiff-backed spines,
and the fishermen had such adept thumbs, such grace
these people had, but what they envied most in them
was the calypso part, the Caribbean lilt
still in the shells of their ears, like the surf’s rhythm,
until too much happiness was shadowed with guilt
like any Eden, and they sighed at the sign:
HEWANNORRA (Iounalao), the gold sea
flat as a credit-card, extending its line
to a beach that now looked just like everywhere else,
Greece or Hawaii. Now the goddamn souvenir
felt absurd, excessive. The painted gourds, the shells.
Their own faces as brown as gourds. Mine felt as strange
as those at the counter feeling their bodies change.
Change lay in our silence. We had come to that bend
where the trees are warped by wind, and the cliffs, raw,
shelve surely to foam.
“Is right here everything end,”
the driver said, and rammed open the transport door
on his side, then mine.
“Anyway, chief, the view nice.”
I joined him at the gusting edge.
“His name was Hector.”
The name was bent like the trees on the precipice
to point inland. In its echo a man-o’-war
screamed on the wind. The driver moved off for a piss,
then shouted over his shoulder:
He would drive like a madman when the power took.
He had a nice woman. Maybe he died for her.”
For her and tourism, I thought. The driver shook
himself, zipping then hoisting his crotch.
a gentle fellow anyway, with a very good brain.”
Cut to a leopard galloping on a dry plain
across Serengeti. Cut to the spraying fans
drummed by a riderless stallion, its wild mane
scaring the Scamander. Cut to a woman’s hands
clenched towards her mouth with no sound. Cut to the wheel
of a chariot’s spiked hubcap. Cut to the face
of his muscling jaw, then flashback to Achille
hurling a red tin and a cutlass. Next, a vase
with a girl’s hoarse whisper echoing “Omeros,”
as in a conch-shell. Cut to a shield of silver
rolling like a hubcap. Rewind, in slow motion,
myrmidons gathering by a village river
with lances for oars. Cut to the surpliced ocean
droning its missal. Cut. A crane hoisting a wreck.
A horse nosing the surf, then shuddering its neck.
He’d paid the penalty of giving up the sea
as graceless and as treacherous as it had seemed,
for the taxi-business; he was making money,
but all of that money was making him ashamed
of the long afternoons of shouting by the wharf
hustling passengers. He missed the uncertain sand
under his feet, he sighed for the trough of a wave,
and the jerk of the oar when it turned in his hand,
and the rose conch sunset with its low pelicans.
Castries was corrupting him with its roaring life,
its littered market, with too many transport vans
competing. Castries had been his common-law wife
who, like Helen, he had longed for from a distance,
and now he had both, but a frightening discontent
hollowed his face; to find that the sea was a love
he could never lose made every gesture violent:
ramming the side-door shut, raking the clutch. He drove
as if driven by furies, but furies paid the rent.
A man who cursed the sea had cursed his own mother.
Mer was both mother and sea. In his lost canoe
he had said his prayers. But now he was in another
kind of life that was changing him with his brand-new
stereo, its endless garages, where he could not
whip off his shirt, hearing the conch’s summoning note.
Hector was buried near the sea he had loved once.
Not too far from the shallows where he fought Achille
for a tin and Helen. He did not hear the sea-almond’s
moan over the bay when Philoctete blew the shell,
nor the one drumbeat of a wave-thud, nor a sail
rattling to rest as its day’s work was over,
and its mate, gauging depth, bent over the gunwale,
then wearily sounding the fathoms with an oar,
the same rite his shipmates would repeat soon enough
when it was their turn to lie quiet as Hector,
lowering a pitch-pine canoe in the earth’s trough,
to sleep under the piled conchs, through every weather
on the violet-wreathed mound. Crouching for his friend to hear,
Achille whispered about their ancestral river,
and those things he would recognize when he got there,
his true home, forever and ever and ever,
forever, compère. Then Philoctete limped over
and rested his hand firmly on a shaking shoulder
to anchor his sorrow. Seven Seas and Helen
did not come nearer. Achille had carried an oar
to the church and propped it outside with the red tin.
Now his voice strengthened. He said: “Mate, this is your spear,”
and laid the oar slowly, the same way he had placed
the parallel oars in the hull of the gommier
the day the African swift and its shadow raced.
And this was the prayer that Achille could not utter:
“The spear that I give you, my friend, is only wood.
Vexation is past. I know how well you treat her.
You never know my admiration, when you stood
crossing the sun at the bow of the long canoe
with the plates of your chest like a shield; I would say
any enemy so was a compliment. ‘Cause no
African ever hurled his wide seine at the bay
by which he was born with such beauty. You hear me? Men
did not know you like me. All right. Sleep good. Good night.”
Achille moved Philoctete’s hand, then he saw Helen
standing alone and veiled in the widowing light.
Then he reached down to the grave and lifted the tin
to her. Helen nodded. A wind blew out the sun.
Pride set in Helen’s face after this, like a stone
bracketed with Hector’s name; her lips were incised
by its dates in parenthesis. She seemed more stern,
more ennobled by distance as she slowly crossed
the hot street of the village like a distant sail
on the horizon. Grief heightened her. When she smiled
it was with such distance that it was hard to tell
if she had heard your condolence. It was the child,
Ma Kilman told them, that made her more beautiful.
The rites of the island were simplified by its elements,
which changed places. The grooved sea was Achille’s garden,
the ridged plot of rattling plantains carried their sense
of the sea, and Philoctete, on his height, often heard, in
a wind that suddenly churned the rage of deep gorges,
the leafy sound of far breakers plunging with smoke,
and for smoke there were the bonfires which the sun catches
on the blue heights at sunrise, doing the same work
as Philoctete clearing his plot, just as, at sunset,
smoke came from the glowing rim of the horizon as if
from his enamel pot. The woodsmoke smelt of a regret
that men cannot name. On the charred field, the massive
sawn trunks burnt slowly like towers, and the great
indigo dusk slowly plumed down, devouring the still leaves,
igniting the firefly huts, lifting the panicky egret
to beat its lagoon and shelve in the cage of the mangroves,
take in the spars of its sails, then with quick-pricking head
anchor itself shiftingly, and lift its question again.
At night, the island reversed its elements, the heron
of a quarter-moon floated from Hector’s grave, rain
rose upwards from the sea, and the corrugated iron
of the sea glittered with nailheads. Ragged
plantains bent and stepped with their rustling powers
over the furrows of Philoctete’s garden, a chorus of aged
ancestors and straw, and, rustling, surrounded every house
in the village with its back garden, with its rank midden
of rusted chamber pots, rotting nets, and the moon’s cold basin.
They sounded, when they shook, after the moonlit meridian
of their crossing, like the night-surf; they gazed in
silence at the shadows of their lamplit children.
At Philoctete, groaning and soaking the flower on his shin
with hot sulphur, cleaning its edges with yellow Vaseline,
and, gripping his knee, squeezing rags from the basin.
At night, when yards are asleep, and the broken line
of the surf hisses like Philo, “Bon Dieu, aie, waie, my sin
is this sore?” the old plantains suffer and shine.
Islands of bay leaves in the medicinal bath
of a cauldron, a sibylline cure. The citron
sprig of a lime-tree dividing the sky in half
dipped its divining rod. The white spray of the thorn,
which the swift bends lightly, waited for a black hand
to break it in bits and boil its leaves for the wound
from the pronged anchor rusting in clean bottom-sand.
Ma Kilman, in a black hat with its berried fringe,
eased herself sideways down the broken concrete step
of the rumshop’s back door, closed it, and rammed the hinge
tight. The bolt caught a finger and with that her instep
arch twisted and she let out a soft Catholic
curse, then crossed herself. She closed the gate. The asphalt
sweated with the heat, the limp breadfruit leaves were thick
over the fence. Her spectacles swam in their sweat.
She plucked an armpit. The damn wig was badly made.
She was going to five o’clock Mass, to la Messe,
and sometimes she had to straighten it as she prayed
until the wafer dissolved her with tenderness,
the way a raindrop melts on the tongue of a breeze.
In the church’s cool cave the sweat dried from her eyes.
She rolled down the elastic bands below the knees
of her swollen stockings. It was then that their vise
round her calves reminded her of Philoctete. Then,
numbering her beads, she began her own litany
of berries, Hail Mary marigolds that stiffen
their aureoles in the heights, mild anemone
and clear watercress, the sacred heart of Jesus
pierced like the anthurium, the thorns of logwood,
called the tree of life, the aloe good for seizures,
the hole in the daisy’s palm, with its drying blood
that was the hole in the fisherman’s shin since he was
pierced by a hook; there was the pale, roadside tisane
of her malarial childhood. There was this one
for easing a birth-breach, that one for a love-bath,
before the buds of green sugar-apples in the sun
ripened like her nipples in girlhood. But what path
led through nettles to the cure, the furious sibyl
couldn’t remember. Mimosa winced from her fingers,
shutting like jalousies at some passing evil
when she reached for them. The smell of incense lingers
in her clothes. Inside, the candle-flames are erect
round the bier of the altar while she and her friends
old-talk on the steps, but the plant keeps its secret
when her memory reaches, shuttering in its fronds.
The dew had not yet dried on the white-ribbed awnings
and the nodding palanquins of umbrella yams
where the dark grove had not heat but early mornings
of perpetual freshness, in which the bearded arms
of a cedar held council. Between its gnarled toes
grew the reek of an unknown weed; its pronged flower
sprang like a buried anchor; its windborne odours
diverted the bee from its pollen, but its power,
rooted in bitterness, drew her bowed head by the nose
as a spike does a circling bull. To approach it
Ma Kilman lowered her head to one side and screened
the stench with a cologned handkerchief. The mulch it
was rooted in carried the smell, when it gangrened,
of Philoctete’s cut. In her black dress, her berried
black hat, she climbed a goat-path up from the village,
past the stones with dried palms and conchs, where the buried
suffer the sun all day Sunday, while goats forage
the new wreaths. Once more she pulled at the itch in her
armpits, nearly dropping her purse. Then she climbed hard
up the rain-cracked path, the bay closing behind her
like a wound, and rested. Everything that echoed
repeated its outline: a goat’s doddering bleat,
a hammer multiplying a roof, and, through the back yards,
a mother cursing a boy too nimble to beat.
Ma Kilman picked up her purse and sighed on upwards
to the thread of the smell, one arm behind her back,
passing the cactus, the thorn trees, and then the wood
appeared over her, thick green, the green almost black
as her dress in its shade, its border of flowers
flecking the pasture with spray. Then she staggered back
from the line of ants at her feet. She saw the course
they had kept behind her, following her from church,
signalling a language she could not recognize.
A swift had carried the strong seed in its stomach
centuries ago from its antipodal shore,
skimming the sea-troughs, outdarting ospreys, her luck
held to its shadow. She aimed to carry the cure
that precedes every wound; the reversible Bight
of Benin was her bow, her target the ringed haze
of a circling horizon. The star-grains at night
made her hungrier; the leafless sea with no house
for her weariness. Sometimes she dozed in her flight
for a swift’s second, closing the seeds of her stare,
then ruddering straight. The dry sea-flakes whitened her
breast, her feathers thinned. Then, one dawn the day-star
rose slowly from the wrong place and it frightened her
because all the breakers were blowing from the wrong
east. She saw the horned island and uncurled her claws
with one frail cry, since swifts are not given to song,
and fluttered down to a beach, ejecting the seed
in grass near the sand. She nestled in dry seaweed.
In a year she was bleached bone. All of that motion
a pile of fragile ash from the fire of her will,
but the vine grew its own wings, out of the ocean
it climbed like the ants, the ancestors of Achille,
the women carrying coals after the dark door
slid over the hold. As the weed grew in odour
so did its strength at the damp root of the cedar,
where the flower was anchored at the mottled root
as a lizard crawled upwards, foot by sallow foot.
Ruins Of A Great House
though our longest sun sets at right declensions and
makes but winter arches,
it cannot be long before we lie down in darkness, and
have our light in ashes. . .
Browne, Urn Burial
Stones only, the disjecta membra of this Great House,
Whose moth-like girls are mixed with candledust,
Remain to file the lizard’s dragonish claws.
The mouths of those gate cherubs shriek with stain;
Axle and coach wheel silted under the muck
Of cattle droppings.
Three crows flap for the trees
And settle, creaking the eucalyptus boughs.
A smell of dead limes quickens in the nose
The leprosy of empire.
‘Farewell, green fields,
Farewell, ye happy groves!’
Marble like Greece, like Faulkner’s South in stone,
Deciduous beauty prospered and is gone,
But where the lawn breaks in a rash of trees
A spade below dead leaves will ring the bone
Of some dead animal or human thing
Fallen from evil days, from evil times.
It seems that the original crops were limes
Grown in that silt that clogs the river’s skirt;
The imperious rakes are gone, their bright girls gone,
The river flows, obliterating hurt.
I climbed a wall with the grille ironwork
Of exiled craftsmen protecting that great house
From guilt, perhaps, but not from the worm’s rent
Nor from the padded calvary of the mouse.
And when a wind shook in the limes I heard
What Kipling heard, the death of a great empire, the
Of ignorance by Bible and by sword.
A green lawn, broken by low walls of stone,
Dipped to the rivulet, and pacing, I thought next
Of men like Hawkins, Walter Raleigh, Drake,
Ancestral murderers and poets, more perplex4ed
In memory now by every ulcerous crime.
The world’s green age then was rotting lime
Whose stench became the charnel galleon’s text.
The rot remains with us, the men are gone.
But, as dead ash is lifted in a wind
That fans the blackening ember of the mind,
My eyes burned from the ashen prose of Donne.
Ablaze with rage I thought,
Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake,
But still the coal of my compassion fought
That Albion too was once
A colony like ours, ‘part of the continent, piece of the
Nook-shotten, rook o’erblown, deranged
By foaming channels and the vain expense
Of bitter faction.
All in compassion ends
So differently from what the heart arranged:
‘as well as if a manor of thy friend’s. . . ‘
The Season of Phantasmal Peace
Then all the nations of birds lifted together
the huge net of the shadows of this earth
in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
stitching and crossing it. They lifted up
the shadows of long pines down trackless slopes,
the shadows of glass-faced towers down evening streets,
the shadow of a frail plant on a city sill—
the net rising soundless as night, the birds’ cries soundless, until
there was no longer dusk, or season, decline, or weather,
only this passage of phantasmal light
that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever.
And men could not see, looking up, what the wild geese drew,
what the ospreys trailed behind them in silvery ropes
that flashed in the icy sunlight; they could not hear
battalions of starlings waging peaceful cries,
bearing the net higher, covering this world
like the vines of an orchard, or a mother drawing
the trembling gauze over the trembling eyes
of a child fluttering to sleep;
it was the light
that you will see at evening on the side of a hill
in yellow October, and no one hearing knew
what change had brought into the raven’s cawing,
the killdeer’s screech, the ember-circling chough
such an immense, soundless, and high concern
for the fields and cities where the birds belong,
except it was their seasonal passing, Love,
made seasonless, or, from the high privilege of their birth,
something brighter than pity for the wingless ones
below them who shared dark holes in windows and in houses,
and higher they lifted the net with soundless voices
above all change, betrayals of falling suns,
and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.
The fist clenched round my heart
loosens a little, and I gasp
brightness; but it tightens
again. When have I ever not loved
the pain of love? But this has moved
past love to mania. This has the strong
clench of the madman, this is
gripping the ledge of unreason, before
plunging howling into the abyss.
Hold hard then, heart. This way at least you live.