five birds flying on the sea

3 Poems by Derek Walcott

1. Becune Point


Stunned heat of noon. In shade, tan, silken cows
hide in the thorned acacias. A butterfly staggers.

Stamping their hooves from thirst, small horses drowse
or whinny for water. On parched, ochre headlands, daggers

of agave bristle in primordial defense,
like a cornered monster backed up against the sea.

A mongoose charges dry grass and fades through a fence
faster than an afterthought. Dust rises easily.

Haze of the Harmattan, Sahara dust, memory’s haze
from the dried well of Africa, the headland’s desert

or riders in swirling burnooses, mixed with the greys
of hills veiled in Impressionist light. We inherit

two worlds of associations, or references, drought
that we heighten into Delacroix’s North Africa,

veils, daggers, lances, herds the Harmattan brought
with a phantom inheritance, which the desperate seeker

of a well-spring staggers in the heat in search of—
heroic ancestors; the other that the dry season brings

is the gust of a European calendar, but it is the one love
that thirsts for confirmations in the circling rings

of the ground dove’s cooing on stones, in the acacia’s
thorns and the agave’s daggers, that they are all ours,

the white horsemen of the Sahara, India’s and Asia’s
plumed mongoose and crested palmtree, Benin and Pontoise.

We are history’s afterthought, as the mongoose races
ahead of its time; in drought we discover our shadows,

our origins that range from the most disparate places,
from the dugouts of Guinea to the Nile’s canted dhows.


The incredible blue with its bird-inviting cloud,
in which there are crumbling towers, banners and domes,

and the sliding Carthage of sunsets, the marble shroud
drawn over associations that are Greece’s and Rome’s

and rarely of Africa. They continue at sixty-seven
to echo in the corridors of the head, perspectives

of a corridor in the Vatican that led, not to heaven,
but to more paintings of heaven, ideas in lifted sieves

drained by satiety because great art can exhaust us,
and even the steadiest faith can be clogged by excess,

the self-assured Christs, the Madonnas’ inflexible postures
without the mess of motherhood. With this blue I bless

emptiness where these hills are barren of tributes
and the repetitions of power, our sky’s naive

ceiling without domes and spires, an earth whose roots
like the thorned acacia’s deepen my belief.

Poetry (December 1998).Source: Poetry (Poetry Foundation, 1998)

2. Map of the New World


I ArchipelagoesAt the end of this sentence, rain will begin.
At the rain’s edge, a sail.

Slowly the sail will lose sight of islands;
into a mist will go the belief in harbours
of an entire race.

The ten-years war is finished.
Helen’s hair, a grey cloud.
Troy, a white ashpit
by the drizzling sea.

The drizzle tightens like the strings of a harp.
A man with clouded eyes picks up the rain
and plucks the first line of the Odyssey.

3. The Bounty


[for Alix Walcott]i

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.
Derek Walcott, “The Bounty” from The Bounty. Copyright © 1998 by Derek Walcott. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, All rights reserved.Source: The Bounty (Faber and Faber, 1997)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts