We Are Gentlemen Abroad

My French partner’s passport’s
Dutch, I’m native to New Orleans
to escape Napoleon’s levies,
to which

our ship struck by privateers & stripped
of wine, pigs, our best two sailors,
& kept in Rattlesnake’s lee
a day, in pistol range,
off Sandy Hook New York

is trifling

sunburned & excited,
I learn that the body remembers
motion: rooms & streets swoop
seawise. I laugh at my sailor’s walk
but am suddenly weak—

burning, I ride
long arcs, moan, crest
in sunlight & slide, dizzy, down. Is it water
makes such huge noise? Some
dark thing looms, I struggle,
drenched, in a disarray of quilts—

So my English comes pirated,
fevered, Quakered. They wear
gray dresses, & when they open windows
trees waver in ordinary light
& I am John James, agent
in America for Audubon père
who is words on paper here,
an Atlantic of days away
from Rozier & me, men of business.


“We Are Gentlemen Abroad” from Commonwealth of Wings: An Ornithological Biography Based on the Life of John James Audubon © 1991 by Pamela Alexander. Published by Wesleyan University Press. Used with permission.