Babo Speaks from Lima

“deep memories yield no epitaphs”

 — Melville

 

The sun, like a round white bone,

beat our backs—this press borne

westward by the chains of that world

turning and whipped by wind

tattering shrouds furled even against

the broad black shoulders of night—

beat the caulked boards, our bare feet

burning, our wounds salt-stitched and raw;

beat the ocean’s eyes to diamonds;

beat down the tiny fishes that leapt in us.

What was it we wore around our

blood and wishes? Some tarred

covering as thin as the inside of a mirror.

Something blue eyes feared for the fear

reflected back at them. Judgments.

Evidence. Drumheads reverberant

with the beat of rowlocks and oars;

beat of the prow crashing toward

that vast, awful, undulating unknown;

beat each of us carried between

our ribs like a thousand nights

alive with legs and firelight, nights

I reclaimed sometimes in the quiet

moments when the firmament,

frozen there in the square of the open hold,

seemed like a sieve through which our untold

protests pulsed. For days I waited.

Watched. When Aranda paced the deck,

my malice followed as close as the famished,

fire-eyed, gale-blasted gulls, which lunged

incessantly at the aft. My head was a hive.

The sea the field of sorghum I’d scythed

before the dry wind blew in from Iberia.

I could no longer remember my daughter,

my wife. I sought them in the women confined

alongside me, and in every eye I spied

a mask I recognized. Night fell as night will fall.

I mined the eyes of Atufal and bade Dago

dig a Spanish grave out of the deep.

How black! How bilious, black, and sweet-

sick blood looks when splashed in moonlight.

I retched at the raw-egg stench of it

the way a boy will to smell a butchered pig.

Death watched, jack-eyed and fettered.

Hatchets dripped. Out of the forecastle

a fowl piped in its ague. All I knew a-keel,

my vision drowned, but come the sun

my purpose swam through the wrack.

I’d yaw even though we’d wreck. I’d barnacle.

O master, I’d try you out to your masts—

 

fittingly—and my hard heart crash me

back toward home like a figurehead, a figurehead.

 

Published in Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, Fall 2006