Novel Niche: A Place for Books

A Week in Walcott • “The Schooner Flight”

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Image: 4-masted Schooners, posted at Flickr by Jingles the Pirate under a Creative Commons License.

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:

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.

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