by Mark Anthony Signorelli (October 2011)
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 all 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 to 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.
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