Poems

MAL DU DEPART
Always the perfect, unworthy lover
of the endless voyage and azure ocean,
I shall die one evening, like any other,
without having crossed the dim horizon.

For Madras, Singapore, Algeria, Sfax,
the proud ships will still be setting sail,
but I shall bend over a chart-covered desk
and look in the ledger, and make out a bill.

I’ll give up talking about long journeys,
My friends will think I’ve forgotten at last;
my mother will be delighted: she’ll say
“A young man’s fancy, but now it’s passed.”

But one night my soul will rise up before me,
and ask, like some grim executioner, “Why?”
This unworthy trembling hand will take arms
and fearlessly strike where the blame must lie.

And I, who longed to be buried one day
in some deep sea of the distant Indies
shall come to a dull and common death;
shall go to a grave like the graves of so many.

Fata Morgana

I will take communion with sea water
gathered from your body drop by drop
into an ancient cup of copper from Algiers
from which the pirates received the blessing before giving battle

A sail* of leather, well-waxed,
the scent of cedar, incense, varnish
the way the hold smells in a old boat
built – in other times – on the Eufrates* or in Phoenicia*.

Corrosion, flame-coloured, in the mines of Sinaï.
Stratoni, and the wine-cellars of Gerakini.
The white-wash. The holy rust we are born from
feeds us, feeds on us, and kills us.

Where do come from? From Babylon*.
Where do go to? Into the cyclone’s eye.
Whom do you love? Some gypsy girl.
What do they call her? Fata Morgana.

A sick man’s letter

Alexis, my friend, I received your letter
and you ask me how I am, how I am doing
Learn that the doctor said to my mother
that in a few days, I will die…

It has been a long that I am bored by reading
always the same books, that I have here
and always I wished something new to learn
that would bring me a little change

And came the news yesterday, unexpectedly
the doctor was speaking lowly, in the corridor
and I heard it, in the room it was getting dark
and the noise of the street stopped

I cried of course, under my blanket
I felt sorry. Just think, so young
but to myself, at once, I promised
to appear, as always, brave

Do you remember, that I dreamt of travels
and I had a dividers and a map
and always I was preparing to leave
and always my mum said: In March…

Now, on the window, a ship I drew
and a verse from Magr I have scratched
“What sorrow is hidden in travels, infinite!”
I too am leaving on a journey.

Give all the friends greetings
and if it happens that you meet Eleni
tell her that I have left on a freighter
and that she should no longer wait for me.

Really, I ‘d like Charon to come
in the likeness of a captain, to take me
stamping, with his heavy leather boots
and smoking a long chibouk

Alexi, I feel now that I tired you
maybe also I made you cry
you won’t find, of course, words for an answer
but you won’t take the trouble to write…

Woman
Dance on the shark’s wing.
Play the wind with your tongue and go.
In some places they called you Judith, in some others Maria.
A snake and a moray eel are tearing each other apart on the rock

I’ve been in a hurry since I was a kid but now I am taking my time.
A concrete mixer left me in the world and it’s whistling.
Your hand, that touched my thinning hair,
it almost broke me for a moment but now it can’t define me.

Painted. With the red moonlight on you.
Full of seaweed and blossom, an amphibian fate.
Riding a horse with no saddle and no bridle,
for the first time, in a cave in Altamira.

The seagull leaps to blind the dolphin.
Why are you looking at me? Shall I remind you of where you saw me?
On the sand, I had blinded you upside down,
that night when they founded the pyramids.

Painted. With a sick light on you.
You are thirsty for gold. Take, search, count.
Here, next to you, I am staying still for years
until you turn to Fate, Death and Stone.

Esmeralda
All night you made him drink the wine of Midas
and the lighthouse rocked him with its triple flashes of light
Beside us the boatswain with the pirate’s long braid of hair
and over there the dark harbour of Gabes

In the sweet dawn the drowned man kissed you
and when you wake, the bell tolling twice, you will be drowned.
With every caress, one more drop falls, a drop of blood
from the scar of the old wound from China.

The parrot sent you, for the last time, the “Ahoy!”
and the stoker answered, in broken words, from his furnace room,
“Throw into the waves that old knife of yours, it has rusted,
and go onto the foredeck to hang yourself, woman, alone.”

The ship’s screw, leaving, writes behind it: “I betray you”
and the windlass of the helm whistles back shrilly.
Don’t go. Tell me, where, did you drown it, one night in London
or in the oily waters of some other harbour?

The seamen of the deep have woken to beat the drumroll
and come to do your hair for you, forever.
Sharpen those swords of words, the ones I like,
and come back with the seals, into the caves.

Three days the nails kept breaking, three days they kept nailing you fast,
and you, with your hands clenched tight into fists,
for the last time, and in vain, you cast your spells at the typhoon
which drives us onto the last shore, where the wreckers wait.

A bord de “l’ Aspasia”

Hunted by fate, you travelled towards
Switzerland, the pure-white but grieving;
always on deck, in a chaise-longue, skin yellow
for that dreadful but all too well-known reason.

Your people uneasily fussed around you;
indifferent, you gazed out to sea. All they said
raised only a bitter laugh, for you knew
your journey would lead to the land of the dead.

One evening, as we were passing Stromboli,
you turned to someone, laughing, to speak:
“How my sick body, here, as it burns,
is like that volcano’s flaming peak!”

Later I saw you in Marseilles,
lost, without looking back, as you left.
And I, who loved only the watery waste –
you were someone I could have loved.


Bitterness

I’d forgotten her, the little girl from Amoi
and the mulatto who stank of wine in Tenerif.
Love that’s reckoned in a wooden hut
and the old woman who tots up the bill in inches.

The purple of Titian and permanganate.
I forgot all about the ramshackle beds
with their dirty sheets used a hundred times,
for your body that banished the fear of death.

I denied what I loved for your bitter lips:
the trembling I felt as I climbed the mast,
the compass, my watch, the course on the map,
for a small, elusive shell from the sea.

The fever in the tropics, the clap in Rio,
the fire we started one day in Manao,
the Magyar who stabbed me that time in Constanza
and “Do you ache in the Southerly?” No, somewhere else.

The pain of the fisherman, loneliness of the sailor,
the broken bow of a boat gone aground.
The faded tattoos I took such pride in,
for you, who weighed anchor, a fully-rigged schooner.

How can I hold you, intractable child?
My kit-bag is my comfort’s my comfort in Asia, America.
A wire cut in two and how can I splice it?
Miserable wretch, the sea hates betrayal.

Polygyros came down and became a harbor,
a dark, narrow harbour without any lights,
tonight when the Jews and Muslims embraced
and the Canary Islands sailed the ocean.

You ‘re only fit for weights on your feet
old man. Two meters of sail, wheel left.
A medusa eyed you, it’s drawing near
and a sea-bed where rays and octopus graze.

The dagger (Ena mahairi)

I always carry tightly under my belt
a small african steel dagger
— like those that blacks are used to playing with —
that I bought from an old merchant in Algiers.

I remember, as if it were now, the old shopkeeper,
who looked like an old oil painting by Goya,
standing next to long swords and tattered uniforms,
saying in a hoarse voice the following words :

“This here dagger that you want to buy
legend has surrounded with eery stories,
and everyone knows that those who owned it at some time,
each has murdered one close to him.

Don Basilio murdered Donna Julia with it,
his beautiful wife, because she was unfaithful.
Conte Antonio, one night, his wretched brother
was slyly murdering with this here dagger.

A black his young lover out of jealousy
and some Italian sailor a Greek boatswain.
From hand to hand it passed and into mine.
Many things my eyes have seen, but this one makes me quiver.

Come close and look at it, it has an anchor and a crest,
it’s light, why take it, it’s not even a quarter,
but I would advise you to buy something else.”
— How much? — Seven francs only. As long as you want it, take it.

A small dagger I have tightly in my belt,
that a whim made me make it my own;
and because I hate no one in the world to kill,
I am afraid lest some day I turn it against myself …

  

Fog (Pousi)

The fog fell with the evening
— the lightship lost —
and you arrived unexpected
in the pilot-house to see me.

You are wearing all white and you’re wet,
I’m plaiting your hair into ropes.
Down in the waters of Port Pegassu
It always rains this season.

The stoker is watching us
with both feet in the chains.
Never look at the antennas
in a storm; you’ll get dizzy.

The boatswain curses the weather
and Tokopilla is so far away.
Rather than fearing and waiting
better at the periscope and the torpedo.

Go! You deserve firm land.
You came to see me and yet see me you didn’t
I have, since midnight, drowned
a thousand miles beyond the Hebrides.

Kuro Siwo

That first trip – a southern freight, by chance –
no sleep, malaria, difficult watches.
Strangely deceptive, the lights of the Indies –
they say you don’t see them at a first glance.

Beyond Adam’s bridge, you took on freight
in South China – soya, sacks by the thousand,
and couldn’t get out of your mind for a second
what they’d told you in Athens one wasted night.

The tar gets under your nails, and burns;
the fish-oil stinks on your clothes for years,
and her words keep ringing still in your ears:
“Is it the ship or the compass that turns?”

You altered course when the weather turned,
but the sea bore a grudge and exacted its cost.
Tonight my two caged parrots were lost,
and the ape I’d had such trouble to train.

The ship! – it wipes out all our chances.
The Kuro Siwo crushed us under its heel,
but you’re still watching, over the wheel,
how, point by point, the compass dances.

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