A History of the Azores
for my brother Ted
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, Kimmy, John 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.