new zealand electronic poetry centre


Ian Wedde

Barbary Coast

When the people emerge from the water
who can tell if it’s brine or tears
that streams from them, purple sea
or the bruises of their long immersion?
They seem to weep for the dreams they had
which now the light slices into buildings
of blinding concrete along the Corniche.
Is it music or news the dark windows utter?
Day-long dazzle of the shallows
and at night the moon trails her tipsy sleeves
past the windows of raffish diners.
The hectic brake-lights of lovers
jam the streets. My place or your place.
They lose the way again and again.
At dawn the birds leave the trees in clouds,
they petition the city for its crumbs.
The diners are cheap and the food is bad
but you’d sail a long way to find anything
as convenient. Pretty soon, sailor boy,
you’ll lose your bearings on language.
Language with no tongue
to lash it to the teller.
Stern-slither of dogfish guttings.
Sinbad’s sail swaying in the desert.
Only those given words can say what they want.
Out there the velvet lady runs her tongue
over them. And she is queen of the night –
her shadow flutters in the alleys.
And young sailors, speechless, lean
on the taffrail. They gaze at the queen’s amber
but see simple lamps their girls hang in sash windows.
Thud of drums. Beach-fires. Salt wind in the ratlines.
Takes more than one nice green kawakawa
leaf, chewed, to freshen the mouth
that’s kissed the wooden lips of the figurehead
above history’s cut-water
in the barbarous isles’
virgin harbours. That hulk shunned by rats
bursts into flames.
And now the smoky lattice of spars
casts upon the beach
the shadow-grid of your enlightened city.
And now I reach through them – I reach
through the eyes of dreaming sailors,
faces inches from the sweating bulkheads,
blankets drenched in brine and sperm.
Trailing blood across the moon’s wake
the ship bore out of Boka Bay.
Trailing sharks, she sailed
for Port Destruction. In Saint Van le Mar,
Jamaica, Bligh’s breadfruit trees grew tall.
In Callao on the coast of Peru
geraniums bloomed like sores
against whitewashed walls.
The dock tarts’ parrots jabbering
cut-rates in six tongues.
The eroding heartland, inland cordillera
flashing with snow – these the voyager forgets.
His briny eyes
flood with chimerical horizons.
‘I would tell you if I could – if I could
remember, I would tell you.
All around us the horizons
are turning air into water
and I can’t remember
where the silence ended and speech began,
where vision ended and tears began.
All our promises vanish into thin air.
What I remember are the beaches of that city
whose golden children dance
on broken glass. I remember cold beer
trickling between her breasts as she drank.
But my paper money burned
when she touched it. The ship
clanked up to its bower, the glass towers
of the city burned back there in the sunset glow.’
Cool star foundering in the west.
Coast the dusty colour of lions.
The story navigates by vectors
whose only connection is the story.
The story is told in words
whose only language is the story.
All night the fo’c’s’le lamp smokes above the words.
All day the sun counts the hours of the story.
Heave of dark water where something
else turns – the castaway’s tongue
clappers like a mission bell.
Unheard his end, and the story’s.
Raconteurs in smoky dives
recall his phosphorescent arm
waving in the ship’s wake.
Almost gaily. But the ship sailed on.






Last updated 31 May, 2007