THERE is deliberateness in all sea-island ways,
Outlandish to our days as stone wheels are.
The islands cannot see the use of life
Which only lives for change;
Their days are flat,
And all things there move slowly.
Even the seasons are conservative—
No sudden flaunting of wild colors in the fall,
Only a gradual fading of the green,
As if the earth turned slowly,
Or looked with one still face upon the sun
As Venus does;
Until the trees, the fields, the marshes,
All turn dun, dull Quaker brown,
And a mild winter settles down,
And mosses are more gray.
All human souls are glasses which reflect
The aspects of the outer world.
See what terrible gods the huge Himalayas bred!—
And the fierce Jewish Jaywah came
From the hot Syrian desert
With his inhibitory decalogue.
The gods of little hills are always tame;
Here God is dull, where all things stay the same.
No change on these sea-islands!
The huge piled clouds range
White in the cobalt sky;
The moss hangs,
And the strong tiring sea-winds blow—
While day on glistering day goes by.
The horses plow with hanging heads—
Slow, followed by a black-faced man,
Indifferent to the sun.
The old cotton bushes hang with whitened heads;
And there among the live-oak trees
Peep the small whitewashed cabins,
Painted blue perhaps, with scarlet-turbaned women,
Ample-hipped, with voices soft and warm;
And the lean hounds and chocolate children swarm.
Day after day the ocean pumps
The awful valve-gates of his heart,
Diastole and systole through these estuaries;
The tides flow in long gray weed-streaked lines;
The salt water, like the planet’s lifeblood, goes
As if the earth were breathing with long-taken breaths
And we were very near her heart.
No wonder that these faces show a tired dismay,
Looking on burning suns, and scarcely blithe in May.
Spring’s coming is too fierce with life,
And summer is too long;
The stunted pine trees struggle with the sand
Till the eyes sicken with their dwarfing strife.
There are old women here among these island homes,
With dull brown eyes that look at something gray,
And tight silver hair, drawn back in lines,
Like the beach grass that’s always blown one way;
With such a melancholy in their faces
I know that they have lived long in these places.
The tides, the hooting owls, the daylight moons,
The leprous lights and shadows of the mosses,
The funereal woodlands of these coasts,
Draped like a hearse,
And memories of an old war’s ancient losses,
Dwell in their faces’ shadows like gray ghosts.
The terror of the black man always near,
The drab level of the rice-fields and the marsh
Lend them a mask of fear.
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.
After the hurricane of the late forties,
Peter Polite says, in the live-oak trees
Were weird, macabre macaws
And ash-colored cockatoos, blown overseas
From Nassau and the West Indies.
These hopped about like dead men’s thoughts
Among the draggled Spanish moss,
Preening themselves, all at a loss,
Preening faint caws,
And shrieking from nostalgia—
With dull screams like a child
Born with neuralgia—
And this seems true to me,
Fitting the landscape’s drab grotesquery.
Black Julius peered out from the galley fly;
Behind Jim Island, lying long and dim;
An infra owl-light tinged the twilight sky
As if a bonfire burned for cherubim.
Dark orange flames came leering through the pines,
And then the moon’s face, struggling with a sneeze,
Along the flat horizon’s level lines
Her nostrils fingered with palmetto trees.
Her platinum wand made water wrinkles buckle;
Old Julius gave appreciative chuckle;
“It’s jes about hag-hollerin’ time,” he said.
I watched the globous buckeyes in his head
Peer back along the bloody moon-wash dim
To see the fish-tailed water-witches swim.
The judge, who lives impeccably upstairs
With dull decorum and its implication,
Has all his servants in to family prayers,
And edifies his soul with exhortation.
Meanwhile his blacks live wastefully downstairs;
Not always chaste, they manage to exist
With less decorum than the judge upstairs,
And find withal a something that he missed.
This painful fact a Swede philosopher,
Who tarried for a fortnight in our city,
Remarked, one evening at the meal, before
We paralyzed him silent with our pity—
Saying the black man living with the white
Had given more than white men could requite.
Sea-island winds sweep through Palmetto Town,
Bringing with piney tang the old romance
Of Pirates and of smuggling gentlemen;
And tongues as languorous as southern France
Flow down her streets like water-talk at fords;
While through iron gates where pickaninnies sprawl,
The sound floats back, in rippled banjo chords,
From lush magnolia shade where mockers call.
Mornings, the flower-women hawk their wares—
Bronze caryatids of a genial race,
Bearing the bloom-heaped baskets on their heads;
Lithe, with their arms akimbo in wide grace,
Their jasmine nods jestingly at cares—
Turbaned they are, deep-chested, straight and tall,
Bandying old English words now seldom heard,
But sweet as Provençal.
Dreams peer like prisoners through her harp-like gates,
From molten gardens mottled with gray-gloom,
Where lichened sundials shadow ancient dates,
And deep piazzas loom.
Fringing her quays are frayed palmetto posts,
Where clipper ships once moored along the ways,
And fanlight doorways, sunstruck with old ghosts,
Sicken with loves of her lost yesterdays.
Often I halt upon some gabled walk,
Thinking I see the ear-ringed picaroons,
Slashed with a sash or Spanish folderols,
Gambling for moidores or for gold doubloons.
But they have gone where night goes after day,
And the old streets are gay with whistled tunes,
Bright with the lilt of scarlet parasols,
Carried by honey-voiced young octoroons.
© Hervey Allen