Bligh’s Way

(23May1789 – After the Mutiny)

I am here. These crests
presume a sign of land.
Yes sir. I steer with the wind
five points off the beam.
The spray stings and pries at sleep
when I was lost in a kiss,
when I felt a hand
and someone waved, was it Otaheeti
or Portsmouth?

The swollen boards creak no pause
for respite from the breadfruit’s course.
We’ve come far to gamble
with the angels of someone else’s creed—
so far that the gulls blot memory
of my cheeks being dry.

II

Noon. His planchette tugs
at the sextant’s aim:
He mumbles the minutes in the flash
from the mirror. What’s that angle, son?
Twenty three hundred miles
in twenty five days.

Careful sir, the wind shifts,
we need to come about.

So much spume, God’s flotsam floating
the random gleam of the sun, a foil
left out of its sheath. The tricks of sky
fail their ruse. His steady hand mirrors
the course. I steer.
Twelve others try to sleep,
wriggling for an inch of oak. They dream,
I wager, of Mr. Christian, the island, women
and fat roasted pigs.

The breadfruit mutterings I heard this morning,
the intricacies for “his King.”
No lies, no event out of place. Never fear, my lads,
I will do you justice if ever I reach England.

No one knew what he meant.

III.

Breadfruit sir, the breadfruit. Lord Banks
forgive me. I’ll find the blackguard, I’ll…

The twenty-third of May dawned to a sighting,
more or less; a booby. We swung
an oar and clipped its wing. The cheers
rang in the morning’s calm.
I thought I heard the Captain too.

Weak and my lips begin to bleed. A sore
on my thigh spills its pus when pressed
against the boards by another’s leg.
Eighteen of us head to foot
in this sloshing bilge of oak,
sawn to twenty three feet by a carpenter
who dreams its name.

It’s the Articles, son, that keep us alive,
they are the bulwarks of faith, the nails,
the measure, the plan, the hand,
the wrist, the order of mouth to ear,
the way to smile, the way to curse,
what follows what, the right from wayward,
the door, the gate, the rail.

He uses the halves of coconuts to weigh
the bits of flesh from the unlucky bird.
His economy works as reason, if only reason
were less hungry. He saves enough for an afterlife.

IV.

This slosh mimics the drunkenness of wave’s
gray gallop. What cruel sun warms
little girls on the sand and hangs idle
over this cold rain.

Nelson lies next to me, whimpering
through the weak trumpets of his bloody lips.
All the botany he knows is withering.
I wake him for his ration, his shell of water.
He asks if his drawings are safe.
His days are narrowing till only orchids
are left; not mothers, not pains,
nor the bite of a captain’s bark,
not wives or daughters,
not stars, not friends, no enemies, just drawings,
drawings of his orchids.

The captain motions for Nelson’s watch, I plead
that he is sick.
Sick? Sick is a blackguard’s ruse.
It’s not the muscle that fails but the will
and that isn’t even his to wield. Have you not learned
a thing since the madness of Christian?

I’ll do his watch, I say, climbing forward to the bow.
That you will, son, bail with all your might.
It is hope we are nearing.

V.

Slap, slap, The spray stings
during the silence after fear.
Slap, slap. A howl fades, what color
was its eyes? Song merges with the laugh
of my Otaheeti girl. Joseph Banks
slams a gavel. What morsel
of a booby’s gut could he ingest?
Bligh knows the way.
Slap, slap. A cramp hop-scotches
with the misery of miles, the miles
we’ve come, the miles we’ve left.
Yes, Mr. Banks we are here and by
the iron of Bligh, we’ll soon be there.
What will you say to the seamen
once your losses have been weighed?
I could not feel my face watching Bligh
watch those men pitch his breadfruit over the side.

VI.

A jolt brings the blood to my face and I peer
over the gunwales at nothing to see.
I cannot reconcile Orion
with anywhere to go,
though I’ve seen its scabbard from my fields,
through the curtains, from my cotton stuffed chair.

You there, you there.

Not here anymore or there and where
were we when Johnny died? Yes sir,
I remember now. Tofua. London
can’t hear what we’ve witnessed
and still go home to their wives.

I’ve spoken out of phase with the moon,
my sinews wag before these bones.
With each wave, I’m tossed against
the winds. My nose sorts through salt
trying to recall the smell of land.
The sound of buckets scraping floors
drowns our whimpers. No lies are left
in us as Bligh begins to mutter,
What answers will Christian give
if I don’t find him first.

In the troughs, the whining grows,
he holds his cutlass close.

I steer, Bligh points. my worry of wind
and waves will mean nothing to the judge;
it is just; that the wind calls to order
the directions of Capt’n Bligh.
It is just; we bite our tongues and give
to Bligh our voice.
Without his scale and his hand
we’d have killed each other
for those ghastly bits of bird.

I watched him swallow his
with the will we handed him.

Keep bailing lads, keep bailing.

 

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