Ae Fond Kiss
What was it I knew then
have now forgotten entirely
was it the parting by the river
that first girl I held at Harvest
or planting season when love
sprung vernal or was it squandered
by the dock at Greenock
where I lay my Mary down or
at sea the last farewell to Jean
when I cast myself out
like a line of fishing wire
pitching as the ship pitched
propelled away from shore
toward the fettered horizon.
Life itself became disease
aboard the Bell, passage to Jamaica—
first landing in Kingston, my illness
at sea gave way to a greater unhinging,
the period they call here the seasoning.
For weeks I was adrift, mind
fretted with fevers, body wracked
with chills afflicting even the strongest
who breach these shores.
Brother, I was counted dead,
then nearly dead. When we arrived
and for many a time after,
I was nine parts, nine tenths
out of ten, stark staring mad.
In the grim sky a tempest is brewing.
I watch the children of affliction,
backs carved from the swell of these hills,
curved against the arc of the whip, their sweat
and blood rivering flesh. Machetes swing,
day in, day out, while the woe-delighted
minister of grief hovers above us all.
In this place, who and where am I
to be found? Home so hot, I’d thought
to give dodging and doubling and winged
for the Atlantic. Not seeking fortune,
the siren call for many a traveller,
but to flee my disgrace. Now
possessing neither house nor home,
I am wayfarer, wanderer, sojourner
in this strange land, master
over some, slave to ill-begotten fate,
to Douglas and his every command. I,
who wished to be a clever fellow,
who thought I could escape the trappings
of a narrow world, have entered one
yet more winnowed, becoming
the detested Negro Driver I feared,
harrowed by the feeling of the damned.
Douglas calls this place Ayr Mount,
remapping for Scotia the island.
But not even the Ayr of home casts
such alchemical light, every red
quickly turned to blood and rust.
What in man yokes us to the past?
What name could contain the history
of any tract of land? This promontory
facing the sea, backward casts its gaze
across the Rio Grande valley, lifts
its eyes toward the Blue Mountains.
It has done so long before we came,
will do so well after we are dust,
while the Ayr I knew, another life,
corrodes inside of this one.
You cannot know what I have witnessed,
what I have done. Now this word
you send of my infant twins,
gone to the grave, while faithless
Jean remains steadfast in reproach—
how much is one man to bear?
I did penance before the Kirk,
removed myself to earth
among these mountains, yet censure
and blame shadow my every step,
misery clings to the hem of my clothes.
Not you, brother, not anyone
could fathom the depths of my suffering,
the greater portion I’ve heaped
upon myself in this rash pursuit.
Of all that wrings the mind,
beyond compare the worst we owe
to guilt. In the store of torments,
there is no keener lash.