The Light Well

Clive James

From Playa de Giron the two-lane blacktop
Sticks to the shoreline of the Bay of Pigs –
The swamp’s fringe on your left showing the sea
Through twisted trees, the main swamp on your right –
Until the rocks and tangled roots give way
To the soft white sand of Playa Larga,
The other beach of the invasion. Here
Their armour got stopped early. At Giron
They pushed their bridgehead inland a few miles
And held out for two days. From the air
Their old B-26s fell in flames.
High-profile Shermans doddered, sat like ducks
And were duly dealt with. Fidel’s tanks,
Fresh in from Russia and as fast as cars,
Dismembered everything the Contras had,
Even the ships that might have got them out.
Also the People, who were meant to rise –
Chuffed at the thought of being once again
Free to cut cane all day for one peso
On land owned by the United Fruit Company –
Unaccountably stayed where they were. The swamp
Didn’t notice a thing. The crocodiles
Haven’t given it a thought in years,
Though wayward bombs from 4.2" mortars
Must, at the time, have made some awfully big
Holes in the mud. Apart from the vexed question
Of which genius ever picked it as the venue
For a military initiative whose chance
Paled beside that of a snowball in Hell,
The area holds no mysteries. Except one.
Somewhere about a mile along the road,
Look to the right and you can see a hint
Of what might be a flat spot in the swamp.
It is. A sketchy dirt track through the trees
Leads to a pool just forty feet across
Connected to the sea at such a depth
That though as clear as air and always calm
It shades down into darkness. Sufferers
From vertigo can’t swim there. Parrot fish
Like clockwork paperweights on crystal shelves,
Their colour schemes preposterous, exchange
Positions endlessly. Shadows below
Look no more dense than purity compressed
Or light packed tight. Things were clear-cut
At that great moment of assault repulsed,
The victors proud yet chivalrous to a fault.
White flags, no matter how unsavoury
The hands that held them, were respected. Two
Of Batista’s most notorious torturers,
Still wearing their original dark glasses
(Through which they’d both looked forward to a prompt Resumption of a glittering career),
Were singled out and shot, but otherwise
Nobody missed a change of socks. They all
Got shipped back undamaged to Miami –
A better deal than they’d have handed out.
That day the Cuban revolution showed
A cleanliness which in the memory
Dazzles the more for how it has been spoiled:
What had to happen sullied by what might
Have been avoided, had those flagrant beards
Belonged to wiser heads – or so we think,
We who were young and thrilled and now are neither.
Credit where credit’s due, though. Let’s be fair.
Children cut cane here still, but go to school,
And don’t get sick; or, if they do, don’t die.
La cienega is a charnel house no longer,
And in this pool, which they call El Senote,
Young workers float at lunchtime like tree frogs
Poised on an air column. Things have improved
In some ways, so when they get worse in others
It’s easier to blame Reagan than accept
The plain fact that the concentrated power
Which makes sick babies well must break grownmen –
The logic so obvious it’s blinding.
From armchairs far away we watch the brilliant
Picture grow dim with pain. On the Isle of Pines
The men who wear dark glasses late at night
Are back in business. Anyone smart enough
To build a raft from inner tubes and rope
Would rather run the gauntlet of the sharks
On the off-chance of encountering Florida
Than take the risk of listening to one more
Speech by Fidel – who, in his unrelenting
Urge to find friends among the non-aligned
Countries, now heaps praise on the regime
Of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Russian oil
Pollutes Havana. How opaque, we feel,
Those erstwhile glories have become, how sad –
Preferring, on the whole, to leave it there
Than enter beyond one long, ravished glance
That cistern filled with nothing but the truth,
Which we partake of but may not possess
Unless we go too deep and become lost,
By pressure of transparency confounded –
Trusting our eyes instead of turning back,
Drawn down by clarity into the dark,
Crushed by the prospect of enlightenment,
Our lungs bursting like a revelation.