Ovid in America
George Sandys (1578–1644), translator of Ovid’s Metamorphosis Englished, Mythologized, and Represented in Figures, and resident treasurer of the Virginia Company for its settlement at Jamestown (1621–1624).
I. A Long Voyage, 1621
I left you where you are:
A humming late summer afternoon
& mottled by shade a man reading a letter
Becomes the image of a man reading
That I am forgetting.
This page is small yet stout enough
To bear me whole upon it to you
All the way in London. I may expand
Myself at leisure then fold it tight,
A sanctuary;
Like our vessel christened The George,
My letter is another ark to preserve me: George.

No midnight is so private as the sea’s:
Timbers breathe, a loose rope snaps, & as the wind
Shoves you behind then slaps your face,
Seeing nothing, nothing to be seen, you feel
Unhoused, evicted from time.
But tonight, my love, my lamp is feathered, shy,
Herald of the next ransack & assail.
Behold the storm petrel! gray wick-threaded throat
Burning the oil secreted, an amber musk
Of uncompassed seas & the solitary hunt,
Of error & sign, &
That delirium—which turned
Our ship’s boy to mowing fields of Atlantic salt.
Like windrows he dropped the waves.

Until gaffed, pulled like a sleeve
Through himself,
He will live, tongue-bit, torn.
To return likely to a stool set on the shale
Where he can mend nets skirted by braggarts
Who have never traveled farther
Than the smoke dribbling from their chimneys.
I try never to imagine drowning.
Noisy urgent inefficiencies above, waves
Pummeling, sky shredding, & the body
Anchored only in its just longing for air.
The tighter death’s embrace, the more languorous
The moment. So this boy suffered
Some vast charity of sight.
He was what he saw, an adam.
Now he may be adamant & stain & distance;
& also that small satin interruption
Of terror—the instant breath’s
Orphaned by self’s perishing through poetry.
Like Daphne his voice is forfeit for the song,
But we do not grieve for Daphne.

My bird-light gutters.
Its call had sounded
Like dry wood giving up a nail.

What is this your wound that you must follow it?
For you I had no answer; consider only the reveries
Of the carpet navigator in his room. Listening
To collisions of wave & star outside his tower,
Rock-rapt, icebound, with a mind by dread
& ceremony & the dozen arts of courtesy
Girded, he invented those ideal earths in latitudes
Unstrung that I now trespass—

After I had translated two books
To the pouring of seas & clamor of sailors
I began to brood long on landlessness,
Coming to believe it my sovereign, my home,
When on the flat horizon of weeks at noon the flaw:
A color merely, private, ethereal, collecting
Heft in the warp of time. Days
Before we quailed at the barbed illegible pelt
Of forest, I wrecked, forlorn upon its savor,
Sweet damage of apples
Fermenting in rain-soaked hay,
Giving way to something ranker—
I tasted it at dinner lying on my tongue.
I am His Majesty’s servant as my god made me;
I am also my damps & exaltations; I am afraid.

Heaven & hell enlisted their geographers,
A map has opened the soul’s five hinges, & Persian
With expectance how often have I feasted
On departure. London, Naples,
Marriage, Damascus, now your dear person.
So much flowing through me
My sight has silted dark my mouth. I beg
All the many tongues your wonder cabinet holds
—Dolphin, mockingbird, Muscovy bear—to tell
This arrival, so unforeseen, disorderly
As my hope you will not forget who I was, & am,
Unwildered, unwestered, constant, returning.

Bless you where you are, & where you would be
When you are there, & bring you thither.
                                         My love,
What may never not be strange? What,
This morning, will wake & make me new.

II. Winter 1621

It begins like a legend told to a fretful child:
It was, it was, and it was not. It begins
As if with symptoms of that sweat
I hear, so late (oh not
Thank God too late), you were spared:
A little blush along the throat. A restlessness.
Then the silkworm’s casement, tapering
& pale as the egg of a chimney-swift,
Which we will convert to cloth
To cover the naked Indian. A bobbin,
Which dropped in my tisane would ravel the maelstrom
Of silk. Spindle of whirlwind, spoonful
Of follow. The thread’s stained scalding mile
Pours out my glass tempered in our kiln,
As each new settler is also seasoned
In this furnace, our new-found land.
(As the man drowning believes he digests
The mild water, as the damned marry flame
& yet blister, so do I know myself
Grasped by change at the stroke of change.)
Hold this glass up to your eye & through
Its pebbled horizon you may spy your room,
See its ire of surfaces sore with chairs.
Green grass green grace...
Would that I could account this world one
Where nothing is lost only exchanged.

Without coppice, park, romancely glade,
Or commanding vantage,
Woods press on us; they fester,
& they watch. To the northeast white spruce,
Phalanxes of fledging pinions, clamp
Root to granite & hoard
What they glean off salt-fog, sea-spray, & stone.
From ewers of willow-oaks darkness steams.
At breakfast I have pinched the plantlets
Insinuated by a maple’s winged seed overnight;
It unclasps twin leaves, pale hands
Loosening the soil of my rest,
They never empty of their solicitations.

I find no empires here, no apostles or emeralds.
Instead, all things a-broil with an awful begetting
& my hours unsettled by some new show
Of riotous & mystical imagination.
Though we might wish to wedge us barnacle-tight
To shore’s edge, our foundation raised
On marshland recalls this irritable fact—
The estuary, a nursery of strange devices,
Throws off new forms so promiscuously
I wonder how the world holds any more shape
Than a dream?

From my hand at night (my light
A little oil in a dish or a rush taper smoking
Not so different from his), flower
Ovid’s fantastic shapes, shadows
Of an old empire’s former splendor
Now perjured by Virginia’s clay & leaf & sand
Turned to the king’s profit as iron, silk, & glass.
Belief is possible at night, solitary, firelit.
Then, I can believe in Ovid’s centaurs,
Or at death that he was met by a three-headed dog.
I can believe in your letters, which never come.

It is for you that I persist
In translating fresh birdsong, like this bunting’s
Comecomecome wherewherewhere
All together      down the hill.
(Where did they go, who went before us?
Starved trove: scatter of blue beads & a name
Grafted to that bald acre.
There is my terror & my tale: to go west
Under this eternity of nameless trees.)

And what will you make of this
Humble hieroglyphic of nature I forward to you?
Nocturnal, double-wombed, variously called
Monkey Fox; Frosted,
Or Short-headed, or Indolent.
Let this Leafy-Eared Rat-Tailed Shuffler
The naturals call Possoun
Join your zoo’s other fantasies
& with the Little Military Learnéd Horse
Enjoy its dish of ale. Its fur is durable;
Its flesh wholesome, white, & pleasant.

With one hand I can reach for
A medicine man’s last breath caught in a vial
Or a hummingbird, stuffed
With arsenic & leaves & looking
Like a fine jeweled dagger aimed at my heart,
With the other hand I brush away
The web spun in a fox skull’s whitened socket
While a wild turkey glowers from its corner
Like a small dyspeptic dragon.
My cullings do not quite master my closet.
When I imagine myself returned to the smells
& noise of London, from my stiff knee
Sands grinding as I walk, no marvels
Except those which the mirror surprises in all of us,
The swan-white wing at my temple,
I do not know what to hope for:
That you do not see me, or that you do,
But as though I were pinned under glass.

At my windowsill a quince widens
A jaundiced eye into the dark where are
Real nettles beneath the words & invincible red
Root of the madder.
As long as any image of this world
Sticks in my soul, I remain—

III. Spring 1622
300 were murdered. Twice that
Refuse to garden, hunt, or gather food
But languish like sparrows sunk in a frozen pond
Staring up at shadows, awaiting
The sign that will call them back to life.
They cannot imagine their future.
Haunts without words to tell their trial; like Io,
We would flee the noise of our new voices.

Last night’s sun smeared across the sky
Its customary rose-gold gore. You,
In London, you have applauded no tragedy
Your approximate heart might use to figure this—
This violence. The trees
Do not desist their manufacture.
The perfumier’s corky bitch
Chewed out the tendon in her master’s wrist
Until it inelastic snapped & back she bowled,
Off to the woods & not sniffed since.

With the smell of breakfast still in the air,
The aftertaste of lead was the scandal
Of blood. Bodies stung into postures,
Penitence, Weariness, Surprise, & cardinal
In red caps, red garlands of red roses
Wrapped around white throats, white
As bacon fat. No one need travel any longer
For all have found what they sought:
Henry walks his own fields, Lucy is not afraid,
Will has finally grasped the subjunctive.
The dead do not look asleep.
We cannot sleep through this life.
I watch the flies at their devotions, & I learn.

Time will not end by water or fire,
But by a congregation of frogs who yelp like hounds
& ride each other in shallow plashes.
I am inhabited by things that wake me,
But do not show themselves.

One frog my hand holds like a swollen glove.
As your maid might pare a callous,
I trim the brief cloudburst of its brain,
Which has the texture of cheese under my knife.
The frog, insensate, blind as an idol,
Would sit until it starved.
If I put Ovid between it & the window,
Tickle its hinderparts with acid, it leaps
Towards the light, avoiding the book.
Its movements finical as a rope-dancer.
Though she have her heart & liver pulled out
Another frisks & fidgets up & down.
Who am I so far from home?

A year—& through branches light comes,
A pilgrim out of March from a farther world.
There is a flaw in the air. I breathed it
From the swamp, a kiss of damp
Translated to a plague that would remote me
From care & corroding solicitudes, crown me
With this headdress of red-painted deer-hair
& weight my ears with wheels of copper.
My face painted blue & silver, my body
Washed in crimson dye, they would greet me
First with lamentations to mourn my old life,
Then by psalms I could enter
Purged & reborn & singing in a tongue
Not mine I know not where to go. (I know.)