Friday, April 22, 2011

Poetry: Morne des Sauteurs

In honor of National Poetry Month and the O, Miami Poetry Festival -- both of which are all about sharing verse -- I thought I'd revive some previously published poems of mine for the remainder of April. This poem was published in the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review in 2004. It was inspired by my travels to Grenada, West Indies.

Carib's Leap, Grenada

Morne des Sauteurs

(Carib’s Leap, Grenada 1998)

I step onto the sun-baked soil
just past the cemetery gate
and the bone-filled earth cries to me
my body turns cold
in the stifling heat, an electrical current
shocks me from the ground up
sacrum to skull

Children’s laughter
from the schoolyard nearby
travels through chicken wire windows
laughter accustomed to the presence
of death in learning

Unmarked mounds
rusted iron crosses
a few gravestones
half-eroded by wind and rain
Johnson or Smith 1891 or 1897
here lie kings and queens of Guinea
nameless to the marrow
flesh branded after their English masters

Another graveyard over the cliff
where according to French accounts
from the seventeenth-century
Caribs leaped to their deaths
refusing to accept Christ as their savior

Jutting out over the foam so far, so blue
beneath my unsteady sandals
a rocky ledge prevents the fall
of a few window panes
construction debris from the school
carelessly dumped perhaps

Poised at the edge
I witness the past
through fractured glass
pounding waves wash
the memory of fallen bodies
but not of voices
still living
My body is embraced, swept up
by hot swirling air
the soil and sea
beg me to open
incoming tides flood
the threshold of my heart
as if some witchcraft for compassion

The island is alive
burning in the midday sun
a house without walls, doors or windows
where I might step on this broken earth
gaze down this cliff
grab your arm and say
no, do not leap
please stay a while and speak to me

And you tell me
my crossing shall be easier

And I tell you
never having known the pain of exile
I am a tourist to your suffering

A frangipani blossom
from this hallowed ground
decorates my hair
sweet bloom growing
from African blood and bones
pink sinewy petals
surviving ever fragrant in the salt air
indebted to a leap of faith
faith to live and die here
forcing a flower out of a gray, leafless limb

There is learning in death
children’s laughter rises
on the whim of nutmeg-scented breezes
and returning to the tour bus
I hear the deep, dark voices of the dead
echoing cold in the hollows of my flesh

Morne des Sauteurs is a true story; I really did feel a strange electric shock straight up my spine when I stepped onto the graveyard. Carib's Leap is an infamous spot on the island where Indians committed mass suicide in the 17th century. Today, children play in a large school yard adjacent to the cliff, oblivious to the bloody history of colonization and slavery.

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