Babel of Signs

Skirting the coast desperate for fresh food
cutter nosing in for soundings

miles offshore they anchor overnight
wake in thick fog-bank that abruptly lifts:
surrounded: 300 canoes:
a tremendous din of wild yells

(the first Europeans they had ever seen)

bold young man comes aboard, friendly
steals a hat, marines point muskets

(he perceives no threat)

moving on, at last a fine bay sheltered
the soundings good here safety at last

(it is winter solstice, the gods farewelled
to the dark world of spirits, canoes
beached, the sea forbidden to all

but daring a fleet sets out to investigate
the strange craft that violates tapu)

drop anchor, some trading for food
suspicion, air of indistinct hostility

barge and cutter press in toward the river
with empty water casks
a fast canoe rams the cutter
shears off the mizzen boom, warriors
spring up to board, the first Tahitian
ever gun-shot dies

(they pull him up to stand
he falls again
they help him sit but he topples back

yet not one stranger has touched him
not with stone or club or spear
have they given him death)

back off, take time
a bit more edgy trading for pigs and fruit

again the boats seeking fresh water
surf too high to land but thousands
crowd the shore, beckoning

(it is a gesture of dismissal)

near-naked lush girls start a nasty
chant, thrust hips, sway big breasts,
show genitals to gaping sailors
who gobble up wanton enticement

(it is pure derision, taunting weak men
with female power)

red and yellow feathers brought in canoes
handed up to the captain he thinks
it is a gift

(it is an invitation to war)

 

 

 

Elizabeth Holmes‘s poem “Babel of Signs” comes from Passing Worlds: Tahiti  in the Era of Captain Cook, forthcoming in 2018 from Louisiana State University Press. She is the author of two previous books of poetry and three middle-grade novels, and works as a writer and editor at Cornell University.

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