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.