From “The Sea-islands”
DO you suppose the sun here lavishes his heat
For nothing in these islands by the sea?
No! The great green-mottled melons ripen in the fields,
Bleeding with scarlet juicy pith deliciously;
And the exuberant yams grow golden, thick and sweet;
And white potatoes in grave-rows,
With leaves as rough as cat-tongues,
And pearly onions and cabbages
With white flesh sweet as chicken-meat.
These the black boatmen bring to town
On barges, heaped with severed breasts of leaves,
Driven by put-put engines
Down the long canals quavering with song,
With hail and chuckle to the docks along;
Seeing their dark faces down below
Reduplicated in the sunset glow,
While from the shore stretch out the quivering lines
Of the flat palm-like reflected pines
That inland lie like ranges of dark hills in lines.
And so to town—
Weaving odd baskets of sweet grass
Lazily and slow,
To sell in the arcaded market
Where men sold their fathers not so long ago.
For all their poverty,
These patient black men live
A life rich in warm colors of the fields,
Sunshine and hearty foods;
Delighted with the gifts that earth can give,
And old tales of Plateye and Bre’r Rabbit;
While the golden-velvet cornpone browns
Underneath the lid among hot ashes,
Where the groundnuts roast
Round shadowy fires at nights—
With tales of graveyard ghost,
While eery spirituals ring
And organ voices sing,
And sticks knock maddening rhythms on the floor
To shuffling youngsters “cutting” buck-and-wing;
And woolly pickaninnies peek about the door.
Sundays, along the moss-draped roads,
The beribboned black folk go to church
By threes and twos, carrying their shoes;
With orange turbans, ginghams, rainbow hats.
Then bucks flaunt tiger-lily ties and cobalt suits,
Smoking cob pipes and faintly sweet cheroots.
Wagons with oval wheels and kitchen chairs screech by,
Where Joseph-coated white-teethed maidens sit
While the old mule rolls back the ivory of his eye.
Soon from the whitewashed churches roll away,
Among the live-oak trees,
Rivers of melancholy harmonies,
Full of the sorrows of the centuries
The white man hears, but cannot feel.
But it is always Sunday on sea-islands.
Plantation bells, calling the pickers from the fields,
Are like old temple gongs;
And the wind tells monodies among the pines,
Playing upon their strings the ocean’s songs.
The ducks fly in long trailing lines;
Geese honk and marsh-hens quank
Among the tidal flats and rushes rank on rank.
On island tufts the heron feeds its viscid young,
And the quick mocker catches
From lips of sons of slaves the eery snatches
And trolls them as no lips have ever sung.
Oh, it is good to be here in the spring,
When water still stays solid in the North,
When the first jasmine rings its golden bells,
And the wild wistaria puts forth;
But most because the sea then changes tone—
Talking a whit less drear,
It gossips in a smoother monotone,
Whispering moon-scandal in the old earth’s ear.
© Hervey Allen