Newcastle Poetry Prize Anthology 2017
Published: Pages 92-95
Sailing off the Sun
William Dampier (1651-1715)
Lately, he had turned unwritten lines
in both Swift and Defoe’s imagination;
Coleridge found his Ancient Mariner’s rhyme:
each in the pulse and lexis of his exploration.
In fact, Darwin first trod on his words
of taking notice of the natural world.
Bligh and Banks, a thousand others stirred
by his exquisite mind: a sail unfurled
to dreams and ideas that might chart
the furthest south of any man to sail
off the edge of all the named and known parts
and in maritime madness fly his kite-tail
three times round the globe. Forgotten here:
so much depends upon this long gone buccaneer.
‘given to rambling and could not settle himself in any place’
William Whaley circa. 1675
For he still hungered for the sea. Dejected
by both earth and grass the ocean nagged
at him, craving for the wash and wreck
of waves. The oldest ache for the full flagged
boast of spar and sail, he quickly saw
the pact between wind and weather and the plan
for safe passage and sure and certain harbour.
A hundred years before Cook’s began
he mapped the storms and ocean streams, the tides
and temperatures of uncharted places.
His fastidious journals would defy
the future with their precision and their grace.
A pirate of both measure and the moment:
escaped the gallows for his islands of content.
When he was seven his father taught him
that the world began on a Monday,
only four thousand years before. Wherein
his mother told him that swallows fly away
to the moon in winter. At school the master
lectured of a land where people’s heads
grew from beneath their arms; and monsters
swam in seas far off that at all times fed
on entire sailed boats. And from the pulpit,
it was still the fashion of the faith
to believe the earth was flat, the firmament
above. He married at 28 and three months
later left for twelve years to sail beyond
it all - and prove that all but her were wrong.
‘low even land with sandy banks against the sea’
William Dampier 1688
He looked on their world through English glasses
first - and missed the harvest in their eyes.
Wandered through the bush and spiky grasses
finding European metaphors to untie
in words the heat and flies and sand. No magic
here for him: this land on the very edge
of the world. No water and all of his men sick
with scurvy it was time to leave. A pledge
with the wind and tide. And on the very brink:
no fear of slipping off but going back.
Putting the ‘some red and some white cliffs’ in ink
and then behind them. To sail into a trick
of time. Eclipsed by those who came and saw
afterward ‘things undiscovered by any before’.
‘The external world is fitted to the mind.’
Perhaps in style, a simple matter-of-fact
narrative. A rational, realistic portrait
of a pulsating world. Shed of its compact
with invention and fable. But not the freight
of feeling. The affecting and enquiring
response to exploration. Land and sea.
The universe. Coleridge writing
of his valour, genius, and degree
praised his ‘exquisite mind’. But more
than the sum of all these things
what was peripheral, exterior
was hard-wired to his being.
Sailing off the sun was what it took
for a pirate to write bestselling travel books.
‘. . . ruined by years of staring into distant sparkling horizons‘
Grace Mercer (housekeeper, cousin and executor) circa. 1714
In 1711 four years before that last voyage
he drops out of his own narrative;
his own long conversation with the page
of history. What’s done is done. The give
and mostly take of exploration:
sailing off the sun. Seizing a last treasure
ship – losing most in costly litigation.
He slips quietly into a small dark demure
cottage in Coleman Street and disappears.
His mind and memory clung to a distant
rocky shore he will not reach again. It is not clear
into what cold and fog rubbed dawn he went
on that last ice-ribbed ship. Of wind hardly a breath;
his body rolled into the drowned-sleep of death.
©Jeff Guess 2017