Sea is History
Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.
First, there was the heaving oil,
heavy as chaos;
then, like a light at the end of a tunnel,
the lantern of a caravel,
and that was Genesis.
Then there were the packed cries,
the shit, the moaning:
Bone soldered by coral to bone,
mantled by the benediction of the shark’s shadow,
that was the Ark of the Covenant.
Then came from the plucked wires
of sunlight on the sea floor
the plangent harp of the Babylonian bondage,
as the white cowries clustered like manacles
on the drowned women,
and those were the ivory bracelets
of the Song of Solomon,
but the ocean kept turning blank pages
looking for History.
Then came the men with eyes heavy as anchors
who sank without tombs,
brigands who barbecued cattle,
leaving their charred ribs like palm leaves on the shore,
then the foaming, rabid maw
of the tidal wave swallowing Port Royal,
and that was Jonah,
but where is your Renaissance?
Sir, it is locked in them sea sands
out there past the reef’s moiling shelf,
where the men-o’-war floated down;
strop on these goggles, I’ll guide you there myself.
It’s all subtle and submarine,
through colonnades of coral,
past the gothic windows of sea fans
to where the crusty grouper, onyx-eyed,
blinks, weighted by its jewels, like a bald queen;
and these groined caves with barnacles
pitted like stone
are our cathedrals,
and the furnace before the hurricanes:
Gomorrah. Bones ground by windmills
into marl and cornmeal,
and that was Lamentations –
that was just Lamentations,
it was not History;
then came, like scum on the river’s drying lip,
the brown reeds of villages
mantling and congealing into towns,
and at evening, the midges’ choirs,
and above them, the spires
lancing the side of God
as His son set, and that was the New Testament.
Then came the white sisters clapping
to the waves’ progress,
and that was Emancipation –
jubilation, O jubilation –
as the sea’s lace dries in the sun,
but that was not History,
that was only faith,
and then each rock broke into its own nation;
then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote,
fireflies with bright ideas
and bats like jetting ambassadors
and the mantis, like khaki police,
and the furred caterpillars of judges
examining each case closely,
and then in the dark ears of ferns
and in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo
of History, really beginning.
Derek Walcott, a prolific writer of St. Lucian descent, synthesizes diasporic and Western literary histories, using his poetic prowess to develop narratives that encourage readers to expand their theoretical frameworks. To many, the Caribbean is a region lacking the rich history found in the West. In the first few lines a critical voice asks, “Where are your monuments, your battles, your martrys? Where is your tribal history? In response, Walcott offers the sea as a source of history, as point from which the Caribbean can develop a source of identity. Using the sea as a transnational space, this poem develops a history, present, and future for the Caribbean.
Walcott draws from canonical texts, especially the Christian bible, to reimagine iconic scenes from the Western imagination. Genesis is masterfully renvisioned as the lantern of a caravel, while Exodus is depicted as bone soldered by coral to bone. Walcott serves as the reader’s guide, showing her the sea’s renaissance and cathedrals. As Walcott transitions from ancient history to the present, the imagery also begins to change. The reader is introduced to a host of colorful animals: she meets the bullfrog bellowing for the vote, fireflies with bright ideas, and bats like jetting ambassadors (Walcott “Sea is History”).
In the first half of this poem, the sea is put forth as a transnational space, one where diasporic and western history share common themes and structures. The latter half breaks from narrative of the earlier portion. Soon after reaching emancipation, the transnational space Walcott created suddenly ruptures: “But that was not History, that was only faith and then each rock broke into its own nation” ( Walcott “Sea is History). For Walcott, history is just beginning.