When I was young, I needed to be wrestled from the ocean, red-eyed and salt-pruned and wailing. Then, I learned the sea was a grave. It didn’t stop me from going. It only increased the want, the understanding of salt.
In “The Schooner Flight“, which you can read here at Poetry Foundation, the poem’s speaker Shabine takes to the sea when corruption sours his successful smuggling ring between Trinidad and Venezuela. The work, which is steeped deep in bobol and bureaucracy, is also mashing up Shabine’s good living: he’s on the outs with his woman, Maria Concepcion, and the clearest route of escape he can see is maritime. It isn’t that he doesn’t love his wife, his children, his home, but love itself is a series of navigations at once as simple, and complex, as knotwork. So Shabine unmoors himself, and what follows makes the poem.
There are reasons why, in the wake of Walcott’s passing, one of the most frequent, voice-cracking laments has been for Shabine to go well, for Shabine to ascend, for Shabine to either soar or sleep. If poets aim the biographical missile-cores of their poems at themselves, this is the one that is pinned most enthusiastically to Walcott’s lapel. This is the poem that summons a lifetime of comparison between the creator and the work, sees the two running side by side across countries, in and out of other poems, Shabine’s arm linked with Walcott’s, sea shanties and invectives issuing forth.
But if Shabine could be Walcott, he could be any one of us. We’ve all made the betrayal that sees us packing our bags and hopping a route taxi at dawn. We’ve all sunk to our knees and begged the belly of a leviathan to forget our scent, summoning whichever gods tumble first towards our lips. We’ve all sought the counsel of spiked-cunt whores; the consolations of white rum; the certain split of soul unstitching from body, mid-hallucination. If Shabine the adulterer is Walcott, if Shabine the seaman is Walcott, if Shabine the scoundrel is Walcott, then what pieces of Shabine are we?
The answers are in the poem, whether you’ve read it countless times to yourself at night on board a pleasure craft, or whether you’re facing the poem with land-legs. I can tell you what pieces of Shabine live in me:
- the realization that the sea is not unpeopled; no Caribbean sea can be unpeopled; no sea that bore witness to the weight of human cargo can ever rinse itself clean;
- the cure for an innocent belief that the sea lives in the blood of all Caribbean people, when in truth you can live generations with an aversion for the thing that bore your bloodlines to sufferation; that maybe there is more than mere indolence to the truth that so many Caribbean people elect not to swim;
- there is no outrunning what haunts you, by sea or land;
- the fact that if you live your life by one theme: in Shabine’s case,
“The bowsprit, the arrow, the longing, the lunging heart—
the flight to a target whose aim we’ll never know,”
then your life can mean more and be worth more than the mess you’ve made of it;
- that a woman’s love or a man’s will not silence the need you have for destinations outside of human affection, since you are bound to hurt the people you belove best by being the beast hewn in you by an uncivilian nature;
- the truth that the sea is history, but so are you, since you bear the stories of the generations and ancestries of your bloodline in your own blood and spit and come (and whether you care about being a conduit is what matters least of all);
- the fact that you should never ask another man to commit a killing that you yourself cannot make in your own name;
- the absoluteness that at least once in your lifetime, others will consider you genuinely mad, and you will waste your own time and God’s time trying to figure out if they right.
Better to live on your own terms, facing seaward, your fish-knife at the ready to challenge anyone who comes for your liquor, your lover, or your poems.