Columbus (Postils on Documents of Doubt)
(To do—a Juana de Torres, tutor to the
Prince and confidante of the Queen)
in chains and en route
for Spain, asks under-
standing and in his despair
remembers . . . Mid-Atlantic, October 1500.]
Out of my anguish I write you, great lady,
shackles on my wrists, a broken man
in hands of enemies. Sons of gentle
Francis, whom I served, serve me as jailers
as they bear me back across waves whose
terrors I dispelled. Their love is gone,
and where there is no love, all else is lost.
Lies have loosed dogs yapping at my honor.
They nip at tendons, lunge at eyes
as if I were commonest of thieves.
They should have judged me as a captain
who bears arms in battle, by knights
of the sword, not pushers of pens.
Stand witness for me, kind lady;
I fell in error through ignorance
and not by firm intent.
And having opened gates to gold,
pearls, precious stones, spices,
a thousand other things, I lie
in chains in the belly of this caravel.
[ . . . letters to
Beatr’z Enr’quez de
Arana . . .
C–rdoba, November 1493.]
This sea I opened is nothing more
than that ancient box of woes.
One journey laid larva for
a thousand more The men we left
call out; great Khan waits across
the bay; grains of gold in
streams still drop their
treasures to the sea.
Great God! Our sails are
nothing more than maggots
inching over globes.
I am consumed, Beatr’z.
[ . . . his wife in
C–rdoba, September 1487.]
God knows when I shall come,
but in that day, I ask you
to take my head once more in your
lap, run knowing fingers through
my sea-blown hair,
and talk. Great mother
earth named C–rdova,
flowing with wheat and oil,
pomegranate red and sherry white.
Speak to me of our son, of
quiet shops with maps to fill,
of other currents life could take
along banks, cool in evening
and fresh at dawn. Still
my fever, as once you did,
and give me peace.
[ . . . remembers a letter
to his estranged son, Diego . . .
Sevilla, 20 March 1493.]
Flesh of my flesh
do I know you? Once
you held my hand;
"Father," you called
me in Portugal
and skipped about
my knees, joyful for a
bone flute I had
brought up from coasts
of Africa. That was years ago.
Driven men look
back and weep as I weep.
Brothers at R‡bida,
your uncle, the court
these were your fathers,
I chased a chimera
across Spain's bitter roads,
high paths of western sea.
They clothed you, gave
you bread, listened
to your sorrows. It was
right that you not come
to greet me on my return.
You would have been
a stranger in the crowd.
[ . . . long-ago petitions
to his sovereigns, the
Catholic Kings . . .
Valladolid, April 1485.]
It's not maps I need, my lords,
but men. I have read
the portolanos, have the Imago,
held Toscanelli in these hands
and traced again Cipango's
It's men I need, gold
in hand, and caravels;
courage to go where
[ . . . and the troubled hero
cries out against
a destiny that robs
Mid-Atlantic, October 1500.]
Old men demand one last voyage
despite all odds, the dignity to stand
to indifference and insolence
of youth, to those anxious to see
One last search for unnamed
coasts, new seas missed by fractions
of a breath;
hurricanes, as the prickly hairs
of death brush by.
Old men claim one more moment to test
the void, and in delirium of holy
storm, to climb rigging of high mast,
to call out Job's old questions, and
hear answers through the wind
One last return, tired and broken,
dying not of tedium, but wounds.
Then, before the final reef is taken,
leave to pass that fury to their sons.