Thursday, September 04, 2008

How 'Bout Some Poetry?

So how long has it been since we've featured some poetry at the old Review? Too long, at any rate. One of the purposes behind starting this site was to feature the new works of Mahwavians, so it would nice to do this more frequently. Towards that end, and with a hope that it will encourage some of our old (and new) friends to submit their work for posting, here's a little something I wrote over the summer. It is based on an event which occurred during Columbus' final voyage. Enjoy.

The Voyage of Diego Mendez

In naked Jamaica, Columbus’ last crew
Sat in extremest enervation
By the side of their ocean-battered ship -
Struck there in helpless dilapidation -
And cast their eyes on the volatile sea
Where they looked for death and not salvation.

Then Diego Mendez rose and he said:
"I will cross the forty leagues of the sea
To Hispaniola, and bring us help
From the men of the Spanish colony;
And I trust for the goodness of the attempt
That our gracious lord will favor me."

So he gathered Flisco, his old friend,
And a few of the sailors fortified
Against the perils of such a task,
And some Arawak, to serve as a guide;
Then they all set out in two canoes
That could barely float above the tide.

The sea swelled flat and tranquilly
Like a plate of blue suspiring glass;
The immoderate sun burned painfully,
Unveiled by a single cloud's thin mass;
And the tangible breeze that stirred at times
Smelled thick with mangrove and sassafras.

But the ocean current under their boats
Ran steady and strongly against their head,
So they pulled at the oars through the seering day
Till their palms hard creases blistered and bled -
All day and all night, and when morning came
One man from the strain of it all lay dead.

For two more days and for two more nights,
Across the forty leagues of the sea,
They pulled for Hispaniola's coast
Which their faint eyes searched out desperately,
And two more died, and the others looked
On their quiet cheeks with jealousy.

Still, on they toiled, these fugitive men,
To one another so little known,
With little more language fit to commune
Than a weary and labor-wrested groan,
Or the misery drawn on each taut cheek
That reflected to every man his own;

Cast suddenly in the midst of a sphere
Unknown to them, and unknowable;
Uncertain of how to find their bearing
On a trek momentous and wonderful
Through a natural frame of things at once
Gorgeous and adversarial;

In constant terror of ruinous storms
Arising upon them unaware;
In constant reliance on other's strength -
Both strangers and friends - to get anywhere;
Fatigued to a soul-deep lassitude,
Surrounded by death, beset by despair.

Yet whatever they lacked in that arduous course
They were not deprived a mind assured
Of its righteous aims, nor a tested arm,
To every trial at sea inured,
Nor a spirit in every season inclined
At all pains to do the will of their lord;

And certain it is, whatever the cause,
Whatever the source of that tendency,
And whatever it meant in the final word,
Those little boats and their company
Were the only thing in that mystical realm
That moved against the prevailing sea.

At last the distorted shape of the moon
Gave evidence of the solid shore;
So revivified, they plied at the wave
With a vigor drawn from hope's last store.
At dawn they made land, and the natives came
To greet and succor the exhausted corps.

They brought many fruits, and spirits to drink,
And garments woven white for this band
That had struggled so long and with such good cause,
Then they lay them down on the night-cooled sand,
Where there was no fear of the sudden gale,
Neither labor, nor heat of the sun to withstand.


Chris said...

Signor L.E., thanks for sharing this -- it's good! It reminds me of the great Wordsworth vs. Coleridge debate you had with C. Seamus a few months ago. This definitely shows your affiliation with STC: the language is elevated like Coleridge's, and the subject matter evokes the Ancient Mariner, but the supernatural imagery is muted.

The form seems like a basic ballad stanza in some ways, but with longer lines (generally close to pentameter rather than trimeter or tetrameter) and with two lines added;the rhyme scheme's the standard abcbdb. Can you explain a bit more about a) why you were drawn to the subject and b) your use of this form?

For the record, I think the best passage is: "And two more died, and the others looked / On their quiet cheeks with jealousy."

Signor L.E. said...

Chris -

Thanks for the kind words. In answer to your questions, (a) The story of Diego Mendez is actually more compelling and admirable than my poem let's on; one of the original functions of poetry was to commemorate the actions of excellent men, and its a shame that it is no longer used for those purpose. Beyond that, I thought the story had a representative quality, which I hope the poem captures. (b)I have been playing around with the anapest, and the stanza I used here is just one of these experiments. Historically, up until at least the middle of the 19th century, the iamb is the dominant foot in English poetry. I think there is still a lot that can be done with the anapest, that hasn't been done yet. Its dynamic quality is perfect for narrative verse.

Chris said...

We worked a bit on anapestic verse at Southwell, and I did enjoy the versatility you mention. How much did you try to limit your iambic substitutions?