Archipelago

If you really see the Caribbean archipelago, you will see yourself,
the vivid scattered islands stirring to awakening in a sea of reverie and nightmare,
the goldening light lifting green foliage out of darkness into its illumination
and the surrounding blue immensity brooding an unknown creaturing of what can live only in depth

If you hear the Caribbean archipelago, you will hear it talking to you in tongues
of the original tribes of the Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia; you will hear quarrelling, then a blur
and you will hear the simultaneous translation of these languages into the first language,
the sea talking to itself because in the beginning and the end there is no other

If you truly see the Caribbean archipelago, it will become clear
how the fragmented, brittle arc of islands, resisting the onsurge of ocean, makes the sea the sea;
how the ocean, reaching around breached rock, trying to rejoin itself, makes islands islands;
how they both therefore define each other, how they refine your understanding of the selfhood
into an acceptance of the necessary oneness of the known and the unknown

If you can be the Caribbean archipelago, acknowledging that your littoral shape is never final,
that it shifts with your awareness that below the sublunary rise-and-ebb there is an undertow,
a contrary flow that draws you down, deepening to where the separate i-lands reach
beyond the scattered stones of their selves, growing down back into one bedrock, into the original
ground from which the sea, the ocean, the self-dismembered yet defining archipelago rise into their being,
if you can be this, be yond it, you will miracle into impossibility, you will see
how to be broken and yet whole.

Value

            (from Home Economics—for Wendell Berry)

In those days all shops were called Ma This or Mister That.
One shop my mother used to send me to was called Ma Branch.
i’d go, playing with my shadow all the way,
trying to outrun it on the Methodist church wall,
dodging it away from other feet—or suddenly stopping it,
chanting my list meanwhile so i would not forget:
1/2 lb. saltfish, 1/4 bottle oil, 4p. keg butter, 1 blue soap, 2 cough drops
over and over till i reached the shop.

Of the two ladies selling, i liked the tall, dark, gleaming one
whose face i later recognised in Benin sculpture.
She would set the things down one by one:
gold, blue, lemon, dark-white speckled shapes, smells, rustlings of paper
until i had a heap of pirate’s treasure on the wooden counter.
Then she would slip the pencil from her hair,
tear off a piece of shop paper, make a rope ladder of figures
and i would watch the pencil climb, drop, climb, drop.

Ma Branch didn’t sell; she sat down, buxom and comfortable as a barrel
amidst a larger treasure heap of bags and boxes, packages, cans,
not missing a thing, collecting money, talking with customers.
Some women came with notebooks and no money — regulars:
“Ma Branch, on Friday when the man get pay....”
and sometimes a child, whose mother couldn’t write,
would speak up, too loudly: “Ma Branch, my mother say...”

Ma Branch had a miraculous set of balances in her head
in which she weighed each separate request
unhurriedly. No one ever took her for granted. Yet
i never saw her do otherwise eventually
than bob her head, to one side, to a shop lady
then nod, once, the other side, to an expectant customer.
By some commonly held scale of values, now so strange,
she gave all of them credit.
Fascinated, i’d hand over my money, wait for change
then race back past the church wall, followed by my shadow.

Years afterward, when seeking the darker shadow brought me home,
i heard that she had died.
There is a super-market on that spot now — it’s larger, well-arranged.
But it can’t fill the space she occupied.

Delirium Tremens

Towards the end he got the d.t.’s. He would see
a smiling girl in a white first communion dress
waving at him. He’d smile back, point her out to me
and i stopped arguing because she, more than i, could bless
even a little, those last days when my presence
only made heavier a weight of guilt and love
that he was tired of. He turned to her, his innocence,
he turned to her — with joy, the way he would have
turned to me, his son, if i had known enough
to see, past a son’s need, what he was giving:
his rebel walk, trampling all boundaries, and his child’s laugh
bursting like fireworks, igniting from a flame of living.
i grew too fast. i never met, in me, the child
he later raised from his own need, who waved and smiled.

Ways

They were walking—he, left she, right—on a winding path below the speckled foliage,
he speaking quietly, she listening easily, so neither saw or heard at first
when the ground cracked and a long fissure wavered ahead of them along the path

and they began to walk on either side of it on parallel tracks while he kept talking
just a bit more loudly and she strained—but just a bit—to listen, and at first
they did not notice since they were still walking—he|she—in the same direction

and even when their parallel companionable journeys brought them finally
to where the track split, forking into a serpent’s tongue, transforming the pathway’s single I
into a Y… they paused only slightly, looking ahead, each one, into the distance,

then continued—he, crossing to right she, crossing to left—both barely noticing
he was speaking more loudly, she was listening harder, and both straining now,
he, looking at her over his left shoulder she, looking at him over her right

and how long they misconversed like that, neither remembered afterward, only that
this was the only way that they could keep with insight of each other
although his voice to her, her form to him, as they continued, became fainter

and they continued walking, neither seeing where his own\ /her own journey led because
each needed to keep looking at the other to feel oriented, and in truth it was easier
to see each other’s path, and as their separate journeys widened into ways apart,

he began shouting with all he was worth but she could not hear him across the distance
and she bared herself till she was naked but he could not see her across the distance
and they continued, they continue—shouting and unheard\ /naked and unseen—along their ways, cleft

and if they could, just once, look far enough into the distance, and just once, behind,
they’d see the way all led back to the Y… and they would find, again and yet beyond again,
their journey.