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A History of the Azores

Unknown Watercolor of the Azores, New Bedford Whaling Museum

For my brother Ted

Santa Maria

It’s nine days past the Boxer Day tsunami in Southeast Asia,

four years now since 9/11, last year’s quake in Bam, Iran

entirely forgotten, the war dead mounting in the fertile

crescent, napalm long since defoliated ferns in Vietnam.

I am sober, cold from swimming on New Years’ Day,

but watching the response of fishermen and altar boys

across the world. The ash of Krakatau still soots the air,

the North Pole has slipped its base, and polar bears

scrounge in expeditionary trash. I see Asian countries,

rupees glistening, with Red Cross brigades to sort debris

by elephant. Not one jungle animal was drowned, their

innard anemometers not something they could share.

Only sea gypsies ran from the long, low tide in time.

I see on the news that a woman, Malawati Daud, was

found a hundred miles from shore, eating the fruit

of the sago palm, blessing angels of the apocalypse

who come down for one last kiss. Doctors say she’s

pregnant, her flood child a Feejee mermaid, while

I measure phthalo of the green above a fractured earth,

just as I frame how people cope with thoughts to help.

But I’ll come back to that. I have to introduce my poem,

a set of fugues, not of voices but of places, a catalog

to undermine the best of intelligent design, with its nine

islands, its isolate gloom or joy yet islanded, its love of

Diderot’s Encyclopedia, houses as urns for saying things,

tongues all twisted into coils of DNA, its fading sense

of history, its swells to masculinity, ecstasy of El Greco’s

figures’ fingers bursting into flame, its elegies to life,

its sloppy process of osmosis, or hecatombs of bluefish,

factories and factory ships gone dizzying or obsolete,

a paean to sugar and wild wheat. I limit the compass of

my questioning for now to what I want to know about

the Holy Ghost that nobody has seen except in greasy

windowpanes in Queens, who’s succored me plenty

since I was twenty, who’s the measure of uncertainty

we seek in Kierkegaard, or the split-second image

of the Yeti in a Modoc valley. Another age will pass,

a whelk shell shed, and a boy, like me, my nephew,

or maybe your own kin, will become a fish again,

a coelacanth, a thing of fire, descending to the sea,

a hunching primate loping away from evolution,

survivor of a population bottleneck when Toba’s

magma wrought a thousand years of winter, vog

and ash as ribbon snakes and trees in Eden froze.

He swims across an inlet, looking for shadows

of his grieving Dad.  Lost to the last tsunami?

Lost to years of shell fishing? Lost to killer bees

or walking catfish? Lost to barracudas or the law?

The chord of the sky today is so B-flat, as light

from a Transit of Venus creeps beneath my door.

I name rivers and a ferryman, enumerate the stars

to brighten moods of diplomats, say a prayer, and

place an obolos on the tongue of the newly dead.

I walk the South Street docks, mouth all pocked

by bitumen and sores, dream monkfish in butter,

in range of where twin towers stood, for rainy

August nights now it’s two strained beams of light

that aim at Alfecca Meridiana, Neptune’s Triton,

the dog star that pines for poet Wampanoags.

Sculptures out at Socrates Park are poor relations

to the song that rises from the central cistern

of the city, from sleepy people in the Bronx.

You and I were boys with milkweed in our hair,

walking for days to see the rings of Saturn,

or by the Berlin Wall, remember? laying flowers

at Peter Fechter’s grave in Niemandsland. Ted,

when we got to the moon Enceladus, vapors

reeked of ambergris, like the Mary Celeste,

floating off the Azores, not a soul on board,

umbrella squid lurking in gulleys of the deep.

I wore a cross around my neck and Life-in-Death

herself befriended me till you and I would meet.

Remember the Battery bookstall where I bought

the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym? We heard

tell of the Peggy there, sung by Dylan Ransom,

a survivor’s grandson who lives in Winnebagos.

We paint squitchy seascapes of the Hebrides,

dream barren archipelagoes, lagoons on islands

of Korea, talk of the grass at the hanging tree

in Reason Street, of Underground Railroad guides,

Azores youth on Yankee whale boats, Sable Island

wrecks, ship-breaking beaches of Alang in India,

where floods can’t slow tar and fire and creosote.

I laugh out loud to share the story of Castle Hill,

where I read trucking poems in a Cardinals cap,

to crowds grogged out on cheese and Pinot Grigio.

Shetland ponies, Jarrett's jazz, and even Jackie O

was there, her face all cucumber mask and maggots.

Last month, we sat at a wake for Cape Verde boys

in Melville’s chapel, just up on Johnny Cake Hill,

near Henry the Navigator Park, as Bill the Butcher

read Moby-Dick, where trade in Thai sticks does

better than the fish wharves, where the bones

of Columbus were discovered, before they were

de-fleshed and packed off to Santo Domingo.

I’ve fallen for a waitress at the Old Stone Bank,

her black eyes, like yours, gazing into Neverland.

Under the jaw of a bone shark, brotherly John

rings out shanties for crews who say farewell to

stokeholds, singing Leave Her, Johnny, Leave Her!

I dream the nine lakes of Annapurna, camels,

leopards, okapi in Bosch’s Garden of Delights,

cadaver dogs, and ninth-hour midnight sweats

brought on by The Bourne Supremacy, where

my love and I spent years, wading in Cranach’s

pool, supple naked flesh afire, seeking the youth

we couldn’t find in the waters of St. Augustine,

as we raise a girl to tend the world’s lush hedges.

Some days she imitates the wolf child in Truffaut,

at sixteen, quietly crooning Lait, Lait. Today she

says she is writing a poem every day, so I know

my job is done, and I am free to go to the Azores.

 


São Miguel

Here dairy farms roll down to the lowland kelp,

sweet milk drawn from lolling, free-range cows

and meadows brim with blue hydrangeas. Açores-- 

sea hawks-- climb the winds that sail to the cliffs

of Dover. On São Miguel, I stare at myriad stars:

Albireo, Kraz, and Double Double-- all ascending,

as we men prepare to take a pilgrimage across

the islands, not stopping for the sea but walking

on and through it, climbing seamounts named

for those who lost their lives on 9/11, looking

for Professor Aronnax of Paris, spying a giant

cuttlefish who sucks the silence out of us, in

warm currents that bear us to our middle age,

the Middle Passage slowed but unforgiving,

as human trafficking abounds in Ivory Coast

and on bright red Beijing junks, full of wasted,

aging Maoists above the barnacles and eelgrass.

On this green island, women are trashing corn:

at Sete Cidades, a wandering princess fell in love

with a mountain man, an archangel with a lilt.

Blue sharks cast wide their jaws for krill, and

whatever truth there is in keeping an eye on

Somalia, right here, in Providence, is lost

to the fog at Fogland, a sea once fished by

Narragansett Indians. Politics and poetry-- 

uneasy bedfellows, like Queequeg-Ishmael

under a moth-ridden quilt. I read of Rabelais’s

Sea of Frozen Words, laugh in the bath at Sponge

Bob Square Pants, a cruel joke played on those

who would believe in me. My Pomeranian lies

prone in moonlight, left leg kicking at the sky-- 

I can’t find enough air to breathe, for bellows

that once belonged to lungfish now are mine,

however wizened and grown thin by inactivity,

a broken knee, a telescopic focus on the wrong

things, till at dawn, I know time’s puzzle, love’s

pure furnace, kids at home, hard black sausage.

From one dark Cyclops cave, my world is blind

to blindfish, to tantalizing giganturus, to sea lice

infestations inheriting good, green, insect blood.

A flying squid, corsairs and caravels above him,

squeegees the Atlantic in search of Aztec gold,

hovering on abyssal plains, out of reach but ever

deep-sea feeding in a fracture zone till he shakes

knolls, spurs, or calderas of the Continental shelf.

My grandson, not yet born into this world, wants

to walk the rills and beachcomb for brittle stars,

tin canisters of oil, Sumatran rhino fever pills,

rusted cuckoo clocks, and bow-rails of the Titanic,

just as his grandmother, aged eight, walked pine

cone trails of Acoma, pigmy rattlesnakes hissing

at the dried-up oceans of New Mexico. Blowing

a kokopelli flute, he looks to Pico do Norte, but

no Second Coming comes: no angels, just slave

trade ruts of earth, vast and waterless, a shaman

like a turtle on his back, telling stories till he turns

them into songs, on a day when Earthlings said

they could do away with stars. Today I call Michael,

to see if he’s safe at home from India. He’d seen

the Khajuraho temples, he spoke to Krishnamurti,

he ate bad mangos in Goa, as water seeped across

a cafe floor, not more. Michael, home, and safe!

And after Rajan Ramasamy calls to say his Madras

family is okay, I know those near to me are living.

It hasn’t been the end of nature for all time-- I just

wish there was more I could do. Jesus and John

deflect; they point away from themselves, a guy

exclaimed one day in church, and I, too, deflect;

I point away from myself, towards the better good.

 


Terceira

Miguel says that all invertebrates have their origins

in the Azores, before they make for the Sargasso Sea,

for the tidal flats of Marblehead or upper Nova Scotia.

At Black Lake, I dream hail the night we Shock-

and-Awe Iraq. Bush, Blair, and Aznar meet at

the Lajes military base, on a blasted day in March,

before winds pick up across the Plains of Nineveh,

where there are no throngs of protesters for over

a thousand miles of ocean, where only bubble gulps

of a goby are defiant. C-17 Globemasters shoot off

for the Middle East, and stormy petrels search out

sea bass, under cumulous clouds that clot the sky.

By the pin-prick light of Uranus, we men prepare

for the romeiro, whales spouting close enough to lap

our ears, misting the dull sockets of our brains, their

heads like battering rams, ready to stove harpoon

boats from Oslo, Nagasaki, that won’t surrender.

We travel the stony Roman paths, leaving fruit

at each imperio, call to the Espiritu Santo, stop

at each white-washed hut to stanch the blood.

Like St. Isabel, devoted to the poor and sick,

we work to turn bread into roses, we watch

a laughing gull spin off to Corvo, to the rising

waters of Noah’s flood. I listen for shouts

from sailors on the USS Scorpion, a submarine

that disappeared in ‘68, found now by Ballard,

guiding him to hydrothermal vents of three

tectonic plates that meet beneath the Azores,

where ten-foot tube worms masticate, cities

lie buried in the deep abyss. I say a Dark Age

is upon us, just as Rome fell, as Byzantium

buckled to its knees, let this world succumb

to a plague of locusts, to frogs and famine

and to cholera, to abject lack of curiosity for

the wonders of the world. Bjork croons Medulla,

three temptations of Christ are blazing in my ear.

 


Graciosa

I charcoal Circe’s Island: thickets of cryptomeria,

shearwaters flying in the dark, a sulfur cavern

that leads to underworlds of reddish, noctule bats.

Graciosa: the name slides off my tongue like Thule

pack ice, its cries heard across a hundred oceans.

Waking from childhood, Picasso and Aimé Cesaire

were there, flooding my brain with the language

of desire, thrumming like woodcocks on the forest

floor, imploring me to leave my friends behind,

to part with journals from Elizabethan joint-stock

companies from Plymouth and Providence Island

that now are Miskito hunting grounds by Nicaragua:

Come colibrí

come sparrow-hawk

come horizon crack.

I’m gouging Sacco and Vanzetti out as woodcuts

in the middle of the night, using single words

for images of brimstone. On Graciosa, I rest

my brain from cane-break, from moving to

New York, to light the wick for the flame

perpetual, the dissonance that floods my mind

as I search on Tulip Street for mirror neurons,

for Allen Ginsberg as he sings of Orc’s nine

worlds while I buy buttermilk at William’s

store-- a Yemeni bodega-- and for days hairy

angels fall, city on city, he says, so we like

Moloch dwell on ballast rocks in Noah's Ark,

near a jungle gym at Tompkins Park, where

my toddler screams Higher! Higher! Higher!

as she swings till her toes touch myrtle trees.

Wherever it is my eyes rest, text crawl and the

letter D will run across the surface of a page,

the anima and umbra, the tell-tale fatal scar:

sick as a rat, I keep tabs on Rhadamanthus.

My Dad’s ghost lies among black smokers,

brigantine wrecks that carry rum and tea,

the Agamemnon sunk, laden down with lace.

I dream cats on the Isle of Man, a California

redwood split by fire, Honolulu grass skirts,

Encantada-songs. I dream cloven hoof-prints

in a bullring, steel cable networks binding

the Azores to our Green Hill, me to the Cave

of Morpheus and the Rock of Vile Reproach,

my mother-in-law, sweating a thirty-day walk

to Finisterre, her baby girl mewing at foghorn

booms, and Carmelite nuns, shushing me

as our own child is born from the remnants of

a burning school. I wake up writing in a book

of ship logs, squinting at things like rope coils,

strake boats, baleen whales, a festival of fire,

an old red continent, the Ural Ocean, a nest of

deep-sea squid, washed up at Haystack Rock

in Oregon, where cows parade along the beach.

I’ve gone soft working for a living. Neurons fire,

back-fire, so many syllables lost. to coconut

palms… a hand-blown bottle on a Graciosa beach

has a message, We’ll meet you on Pitcairn’s Island.

 


São Jorge

I stood in an orange grove in Urzelino, recalling

the Cuban Museo de la Revolución, Hemingway’s

house, where a nurse shark tore apart a tuna boat,

the Escuela de Las Bellas Artes in Havana, where

I drew full-length nudes and fell in love with Ada.

I heard Hart Crane’s cries from the Isle of Pines,

imagined the orchard where hebona was poured in

Van Gogh’s ear. Later, I canoed a green-eyed Belfast

girl with a lazy tongue, our clothes gone scattered

over a pond of loons. From there I traveled to places

I wanted to write about: Tove Jansson’s Moominland,

the Island of Dr. Moreau, Quadling Country of Oz,

Luquebaralideaux Islands, Luggnagg, Thermometer

Island, Helgoland, Deads’ Town, the Bush of Ghosts.

Again the family picnics at Redemption Rock, where

nymphs eat conger eels, where Mary Rowlandson’s

returned from a remove with cruel-eyed Pokanokets.

I’m passing through a valley full of mines-- silver,

coal, molybdenum-- a lorry of oranges, upset along

a wreck-strewn highway, where I heard Worcester

railroad box cars rattling up to Burlington. My friend

David is gone, but at night his soul shadows my bed.

Ted, we tried to dike the torrents, suck its waters

from cold aquatic caves before we trespassed there.

We watched the Sea of the Miracle of Loaves

and Fishes as it emptied out, so we could walk

below its shores, but it was dark before we did.

 


Fayal

Spatter cone of bees and hollyhocks, the Capelhinos

earthquake shakes Fayal the year Miguel and I are born,

he in Mexico and me, by way of Philadelphia, come

to live where Pequots once roamed free. Both of us

as children were observers, a thousand miles apart

but gazing at cicadas, foraminifera, sandstone rose,

trilobites, listing Latin names for animals, minerals,

to be written on scrolls the size of Minneapolis, or

splayed on serial billboards across an Anasazi sky,

both of us yearning for map rooms, public libraries,

exploring with Nemo and Ned Land, only coming

up to feed the Indonesian orphans of Banda Aceh.

We both loved Whitman and Trotsky. He chose

botany, I chose poetry and art. Beer-bellied, we

toil at our taxonomies, he in his lab in the Bronx,

me wading with a No Wake sign at the Forty Steps

of Newport, during an election season, but my sign

says Wake Up, where waves spill in from Africa,

Pakistani tourists find it in their wedding shots,

surfers playing Coldplay as they peel off wetsuits,

and Kenzaburo Oe breast-strokes out to atolls

where, in one of his books, kids with polio, Musan

and Michio, stroll into the Sea of Japan, to the

Aki-No-Nanakusa (Seven Flowers of Autumn),

far off Uta-jima, the rocks of the sirens of Nagoya.

Throatwort, samphire, and centaury grow so fast

in the mist that these black lava hills resemble Galway.

Three fates appear, each with a thread to spin for

midwives of the Azores. Halfway around the world

in a cowry shell I hear your voice, on a faraway

island called Unknown, I call and say I love you.

 


Pico

Before the Azores summit, Pico’s streets are still,

pittosporum trees an anchor to its Pliocene past.

Bush primes Azoreans and Americans alike,

to want to be owners, to yearn for the means

of production, to risk our savings in speculation.

Last Memorial Day, he took Laura to Auschwitz

and the owl-squint shone. What am I doing here?

What does this have to do with me? A North Korean

missile found in Alaska, that I understand, but these

dark, satanic mills?  I think that politics is farce

in a country where saying something makes it so.

But too, his hard-line stance has given birth

to new democracy-- we’ll have to wait and see.

Prince Charles takes William and Harry there,

too, where they pause under the sign that says

Work Will Make You Free. Putin and Schröder

don’t bother, but tour an Amber Room instead,

and Lorca lies dying outside Granada, site of

the Salafists’ dream to take back the Alhambra.

Saddam Hussein is caught in a burrow, like in

Dostoevsky’s Pauk, where, terrified, we watch

a giant spider sleep. Gate of Ishtar lions have

all but lost their pride. Magreb Arabs, gathered

in Baghdad coffee-shops, are cursing the Tower

of Babel, which leaks not speech but rancid oil.

Limbless vets, thousands, inch up a federal mall,

three hundred years to the day that Philip is shot

in swamps below Mount Hope. I take my friends

to walk there, Miguel, the handsome botanist,

who loves Green Animals, a topiary of silly beasts,

naming carp, lily pads, tobacco, and red bamboo.

His poet boyfriend, translator of Pasolini, is lost

in thoughts of Indians and Anglos wrestling with

the angel of death among the cattails. That night,

at Foxwoods, we spy Polaris faltering. I spend my

midnights reading Barlow’s Vision of Columbus

under a July, full buck moon. His phrasing stinks,

the rhyme is slack and he abhors the anarchists!-- 

toughs, Rhode Island Dorr Rebellionists-- but he

plows into the story of 1770’s America, land

as an excuse to oppress the unforgotten dead,

yet in the end there’s promise for our politicians.

Not for Columbus, though, slunk in a Taino jail

with his eyes burnt out, to even think of Isabella.

I try to make sense of this in how I look at things:

Tokkarians, Hungarians, mitochondria, metazoan

predators, Easter Island, a lexicon of Seven Seas,

a glass of aguardente, a kiss for my deer mouse love.

Reading Jules Verne, I know that plankton blooms

somewhere near Kamchatka, and bramble sharks,

shell drills, the wreck of the Andrea Doria, bristle-

mouths, robber crabs, oarfish, eyeless rift shrimp,

brain coral, the radiolarian ooze, the tiny sailfish

of Phuket are poised to hear the tsunami rising.

How I feel, floating on the infinite Sea of Cortez.

Summer flounder, Friendly Islands, hermit crabs,

damselflies and buttercups, a desert island called

Inaccessible. Lotus-eaters eat the last jumbo shrimp

I’ve left on my plate because I know you love it so.



Flores

Ship’s log: moored at Penikese Island, once a pit stop

for zoologists, then a leper colony, now a home

for delinquent boys. On John’s cat boat, we circle it.

Maximum flood-- 2½ fathoms. From Gull Island,

you can see to Nomansland, the Gay Head cliffs,

as a nun buoy trips a rapid bong, bong, bong, bong:

another scallop boat lost at sea. I think I can see

Iwa Umezakia, unhappy leper, beach-pea gardener

who has a crow that writes katakana in the sand.

Lolita his parrot parrots the crow. A least bittern,

without a name, follows him, ornery St. Francis,

as he escapes to Padanarum, takes the train to

Wareham, where he’s caught, sent back to Penikese,

after which they’re quick to fumigate the trolley.

I read Typhoon:  Captain MacWhirr, South China Sea,

monsoons beating on Macão. Swimming with John

and Gabriel, I’m dreaming long lists of the Sudanese

deceased, and think the only narrative for poetry

is sea wrack, banshee legends-- names like Ribbon

Reef, Dumpling Rocks, Chickadee Ledge, Cuttyhunk.

From here I can almost see to Monchique, off Flores,

o extremo mais ocidental da Europa, the Westernmost

edge of Europe. But we’re at the latitude of horses,

where I slept with Maja desnuda in a flea-bit flat,

where men plot Basque bombings of Irún. Years

later, I return to Finisterre with my art star-farmer girl

from Hesse, Germany-- we drink wine with mussel-

fishermen, hear the dolphins talk, and pick cabbages

with a countryman of hers called Hombre, a hippie

come to find a life far from Old World perestroika.

Another oil spill in La Coruña-- we see in the news

at home (where nothing’s in the news) that he died,

heart collapsed in shame at the hypocrisy and greed.

So now I’m painting, using the names of actual wars:

War of the Stray Dog, Soccer War, Silk War, Pig War,

Basuto Gun War, Great Swamp Massacre, as well as

made-up wars like the Potato Leek War, Toyota Pickup

War, Thirteen Minute War, Exxon Valdez War, Black

Tulip Wars, Coca-cola War, War of the Burning Bush,

Andy Warhol War, the War of the Theory of Numbers.

I put sketches on my wall: a Limited Nuclear Missile

Defense Shield for La Paz, sleeping in Roden Crater,

and hiking the Very Large Array. We hate jihadists

for their messianic zeal, but Jesus in our rapture tales

presides over a sea of blood of infidels. On the boat

I dream dredging up the Kursk, a submarine lost in

the Barents Sea, and the Chinese brother who sucks up

oceans so a boy can go collecting: car tires, radio parts,

minerals, Turkish carpets, porcelain dolls, coffee cups,

skateboards, cutpurse knives, and scimitars from Aden.

I’m dreaming I’m on the Nautilus, in the Arabian Tunnel,

thinking of Albuquerque, clogging the Nile with loam

and mosquitoes, an ibis on its banks, trying to capture

back Mecca for Mohammed. I dream I strike gold on

Tethys, a moon of Saturn, in the silence and the dust.

I’ll gather its ore and take it home, despite the dog who

guards it with eyes as big as saucers. Blos! Blos! Blos!

the whalemen of Pico cry, as ospreys soar pelagic

wastelands, for spurge and space junk. In one of Dante’s

circles, even the stinking rafflesia bloom, fertilized by

carrion flies-- a virulent poinsettia-- is an endangered

species. Oh fado, blues of the Azores, sing for all of us!

 

 

Corvo

Grim and isolate, Corvo teems with ruddy turnstones,

an empire of skinks, a tern hatchery, like Pluto’s moon,

named Charon for the ferryman of souls or perhaps

for the wife of its astronomer discoverer, frozen lava

fields where sheep paths lead to the bird named Roc,

where, as the story goes, Ali’s severed head is roiling

in the waves, his wail shrill above the chortling sea.

Today a wren sings out, by the neighborhood hospital

at home, as I try to reach Corvo, finish nine fugues

and a revolution, while my girls walk in a blizzard

home from school, scholars of Mishima, nine days

till winter break, a trip to Mexico to build adobe

homes for the Juarez homeless, free time for me to

dream an Age of Bronze or walk at Coney Island.

The full moon shines over two feet of newly-fallen

snow, it’s bright as mid-day in the middle of night.

I gaze out at a harbor and the shore, where lightning

sparks from taunting anglerfish, out to the Earhart

Seamount, the Sea of Arafura, the Blue Pig Knolls,

Stalemate Canyon, Chinchorro Bank, Pico Trough,

Io Valley, and Challenger Deep. Ted, did you know

that the cost of these visitations could be so steep?

Oh best, second Chinese brother, suck up the sea so I

can gather holothurians with, Kim, Johnny, and Mark,

and down in a gulley of the Mariana Trench we’ll spot

the God of War-- a giant tube worm trembling-- and

lop his head off, and bring it back to show our friends.

I promise, I’ll be quick, so you can spit the oceans back,

so fish can swim again through the waters of the Azores.