This poem forms part of my long sequence Graceline. In 1955 I traveled with my mother and sisters from New York to Valparaiso, Chile, on a Grace Line ship. My father had been posted to CEPAL, the UN office in Santiago, and was awaiting our arrival. Our boat, the Santa Barbara, was a cargo ship, which also carried some passengers. It stopped in many ports, and traveled through the Panama Canal, then down the Pacific coast of South America.
Because the journey is so central to the book, many of the poems don’t adhere to the left hand margin, but break loose from their moorings. This is very freeing. In the case of this mini-sequence, Panama Canal, the form is fairly regular and contained, but the second line of every verse is indented. I think this amplifies, or emphasizes the meaning of each line: the spacing encourages you to look at each line and image separately and slowly. It also, to me, has a destabilising effect.
I wanted to learn more about the Canal, to try to recreate the voyage, but in the end I was drawn to the story of how the Canal was built. Matthew Parker’s brilliantly researched book Panama Fever, with its eyewitness accounts, was a harrowing and powerful way into this territory. As I imagined the lives of the workers on the Canal, I tried to bring the experience into poetry, through narrative and suggestion. The sections on the building of the Canal are faintly drawn sketches suggesting the cruel conditions faced by the workers who built the Canal, and also the resistance of the jungle itself to this vast enterprise.
En mi soledad
he visto cosas muy claras,
que no son verdad.*
Antonio Machado (Proverbios y Cantares)
Unerringly, our ship recovers speed.
There is a splinter in my foot
my mother takes out with a needle.
Seeing each port for the first time
I cannot immediately interpret it.
I hold the picture upside down, I squint,
and there is also what happens to land
faraway, as the Atlantic weather changes,
and to language in all its emotive climates.
The ship dreams a little
as it waits in the Gatún Lock.
I feel the tumult of its patience under my feet.
Now liners pass us on the Canal,
swanky cruisers showing off,
cargo ships with red or black funnels,
nothing helpless or impeded.
On deck my sister holds her hands out –
the butterflies travel against us
or round us, blue and haphazard,
a mild resistance.
The locks open for us, along the banks
gauzy smalltown-America streets pursue us,
and a jungle passes through our ship.
*In my solitude/I have seen things very clearly/that are not true.
The men digging on the slopes,
exhausted or sick, stop to look up.
Soft colours in the sepia photograph
are washed in by computer,
artifice – the pale blues
and rust of their shirts, their trousers;
only the sober eyes are dark
(for who was smiling?) like level tides
with nowhere to go.
Colón, bar-town at the hard
edge of water, Bottle Alley,
men leaning on the bar doors
out of the sun,
in the alcohol-soaked mud street:
a day that came and went
but lingered a little
before it left finally, had in it
a letter, a letter from
with no terror, no yellow fever,
no sliding mud, broken boots
and in her handwriting –
dry, dry – an open door
to a smallholding.
I think of a mud street filling up
with empty bottles.
A man walks over them,
the perilous bridge they make.
I think of the rum
he pours down his throat,
hat over his eyes
and how it feels good to be
where he is for a few minutes,
to be in that heat after a downpour
where the malaria
and yellow fever mosquitoes
can drink from him
away from the workers’ camp,
70 men to his hut, the night-time
wailing over the dead;
and then he throws the empty bottle
away, still stinking of rum,
the reeling truth
rolled out into those streets.
When I look at that long photographic
exposure of the Gaillard Cut
in the slow, myriad 1913 that was,
I see a ship, a hull
scooped out of the earth – imagined in the digging.
Railway tracks are laid meticulously
between Gold and Contractors Hills,
locomotives, dirt trains, rock drills
strewn along the base of the canal,
glimmers of mud here and there,
drenched clothes, but timid, far-off
points of light glint like guardian ports;
and then at last the men put down their shovels
and look up
and see mineral oils, iron, sugar,
lumber, canned foods,
coffee, silver, wheat and coal
passing serenely overhead.
Wherever they cut away the land
it kept coming back, sucked in.
What did they hope to hold onto here?
Dynamite, steam shovels,
the dead, the dying?
Or the marrying, babies,
a bride’s dress flaring
in Culebra, her steady gaze.
And the sliding energy
of the clay when rainwater
penetrated so the clay
all but flew off the rock
burying men, shovel and pickaxe.
This is how it was:
the hill wanted to run back
into the canal-pit and replace
what was taken away,
and the human wanted to join up
the two oceans with weeping