The closest I got to scientific study was the dream of being a cartographer. The maps I made in my secondary school Geography classes were painstaking, devoted to precision and the accuracy of measurements-to-scale. The making of maps was its own cracked science to me, because I understood that even the most precise map was an approximation of a landscape or littoral in flux. Nothing could ever be set down as it was, with compass and chart. All you could create was a scientific chimera of a world in motion, and be guided by that.
This marked my earliest reflections on the turmoils of a scientific life: how your precision could be thwarted by forces beyond your control; how integral to the scientific process it then becomes to never veer far from the fixed mark, to use the data available to you to create the truest version of the world discernible with mathematics and sight.
In “Map of the New World”, which you can read here at The Kenyon Review, Walcott trains his omniscient narrator’s eye on these very maps in motion, of how they delineate and distinguish our Caribbean space. It is a poem attentive to the rumblings and rhythms of monsters: in section one, the narrator’s focus is on dragons, who “with webbed hands, serrated fins, / circled this unknown sea.”
If we cannot depend on a fixed Caribbean basin to turn up each time in our maps, then we can chart our waters by the dragons who once dwelled here: who, if you listen close to the poem, live here still, tangle up in History’s webbed skein. Again and again, Walcott’s poems point us to the lived reality of the sea as the antithesis of innocence. It is a passageway for human carnage, a palimpsest for dragon claw and slave shackle, indenture-bolt, blood and oil. Wherever you can swim, some part of history sinks deep, shipwrecked and submerged, ghosting off the tides of what you think you know.
Ibi dragones, therefore is two sides of the same coin at once, balancing on the tip of your expeditioner’s tongue: it signifies these islands as bivalently imposing and inspiring. If you’re a modern-day conquistador, beware: there be dragons here. If you’re a native, rejoice: you hold the maps and myths and sulphuric fire required as a warning to all intruders.
In the second movement of the poem, the speaker widens the scope of their spatial notations of Time, the ocean and human discovery. Now, joining the dragons to mark time’s passing are gnashing horses; “adept goats on crags”; “the figurations of storks”. We survive through animal nature, as dots on a capricious map. Caprice may be the only way we survive, despite the competencies of our mariner’s astrolabes. Again, we run into the paradox of scientifically charting a world that insists fealty to a science of constant transition, changing faster than we can mortally envisage it.
We have, the speaker insists, met the New World when it was already anything but new. The first and most appropriate response to this is wonder. The concluding stanzas of the poem are a succession of concentrated visual potencies. The one that strikes me swiftest between the eyes says “From the black anvil of the promontory / the sparks fly up like stars.” Here, in one line of verse, the poet holds in his hand the revelation of sea voyages; the arcane marriage of man’s industry and Nature’s astonishingly beautiful indifference.
It would do us well, “Map of the New World” insists, to remember that the world was never new to dragons. What can we hope for, setting out at grey daybreak with our cartographer’s instruments strapped to our backs? Over and over, as my readings of Walcott expand, I come to the conclusion that the answer is: Witness.
This is but one poem in an arsenal of Walcott’s that betrays and illuminates the poet’s fascination with the maritime, and the ways in which it connects, threads and porpoise-flips in and out of the arms of History, the natural world, the laws of science, art and love.
We wrench our heart’s wheels to the possibility of honouring the unknown with our sight — to say, as the schooner dips low in the sargasso sea, ibi dragones.