Who were we, before we were discovered? What were our discoverers, imagining they could settle us?
In “Reporting Back to Queen Isabella”, Christopher Columbus regales his patron. Hoping she’ll continue to GoFundMe and coffer his expeditions, he tells her of the uncommon wealth of Xamaica. He is the prodigal conquistador, if you like, needing to make good on royal investiture.
Lorna Goodison, the Poet Laureate of Jamaica, peers with us through the keyhole of empire. Where, then, are we positioned to see this poem enact its homecoming? The omniscient narrator is one of us. There we were, they say, “massifs, high mountain ranges, expansive / plains, deep valleys”. How unsettling it is that the architecture of conquest can also be topographically beautiful. All of Columbus’ West Indian maps are a cartography that rattles chains, poisons babies and sails, as the crow flies, to torture.
The poet isn’t sparing us. She is showing us what pillagers look like when they go home. Columbus throws the crumpled map of Xamaica at Queen Isabella’s feet, almost as if to invite her golden slipper: here, majesty, walk on this. The poem unfurls us like maps, points to each of our rivers and asks us to consider the weight, the suffocation, of feeling ourselves owned. The poem comes to us from a place of post-settlement. Columbus has already returned, his ships laden. The poem is showing us the very theft of ourselves. We are the people at the keyhole. We are the people the colonial maps don’t draw in.
This poem is a drawing in of ourselves. The mountains: us. The rivers: us. The overabundance: us. How can we ever imagine ourselves as small, when the museums of empire spill with our industry? Conqueror, smile: so I may pluck my gold back from your jaw.
This is the fifth installment of Puncheon and Vetiver, a Caribbean Poetry Codex created to address vacancies of attention, focus and close reading for/of work written by living Caribbean poets, resident in the region and diaspora. During April, which is recognized as ‘National’ Poetry Month, each installment will dialogue with a single Caribbean poem, available to read online. NaPoWriMo encourages the writing of a poem for each day of April. In answering, parallel discourse, Puncheon and Vetiver seeks to honour the verse we Caribbean people make, to herald its visibility, to read our poems, and read them, and say ‘more’.