Voyage to Azania: A Letter to James Mathews of Athlone (Cape Town)

Sebastian Barry

The deck is bedded with purple
blooms that wither or disappear
under the purser’s footfalls.

The chairs were put out at
the start, and now the flying fish
match the queer colours

of the stripes. I am close by
with a sandwich of lettuces
from the huge freezers. I met

an old dame in the dark
with a blackthorn stick, a moon
in her ear, waning or waxing

she could not say, or
I did not ask perhaps. She told
of her blanched sojourn in Switzerland

with a sculptor later famous
like Da Vinci maybe and how they crawled
into the hills together to ski

a long time ago when beer
was reasonable, and they lay
under the pineroof in the pinfall

darks in all their limbs
and made love like snowfall
and surface without a word

for fear of the couple next door.
But how they took to
the silence and the stealth

under the woollen roof! And
she thought that was all important,
to have a home, even a travelling

one. I thought of you and said
to the stars like small larks,
I must write to Jim

as I voyage on this vessel towards him
on a lost course no doubt,
through the scalloped expanse.

Old Europe I called her, old
missionary, tweed capes
and the trains on time, the first thing to go.

Would anything ever be
as normal as her again? The wind
monkeying in the mast-ropes, the bucket-hooks,

puts seasalt in the jam’s glass bell
which I balance on my dusty
knees. All afternoon I searched

under the bunks for the blown
haystack, a bloom on some
subsistence farm, with the bees’ luxury,

the muck on the milch-cow’s tail
brushing and stirring
the brown planklight in the barn

but every wisp was gone. The real
birds in the gritty rigging
are out of picture-books, I knew

their names by the time I was five
but have forgotten them,
brushstrokes with soft wings resting briefly

on the cottony wood
till the notion or eternity
takes them, but whisks them where?

(I don’t care about that any more.)
We trekked in the public park,
snuffing under the hand-warm

seats with the windy tramps
for the sootfalls, the sweepings
of the tribes from the municipal

brooms, the designs on the dark lawns
not local in the musk of the moon,
shelly as a bone spoon. The

birds, the woman, the fish, the bowl of ship!
I am glad I paid this passage
and left the crane-filled

shore. I see nothing but
the signalling of the fins
and shadows of words, any words.