Poetry: On Reading Hakluyt at High Altitude | clivejames.com
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On Reading Hakluyt at High Altitude

High in the stratosphere, I speed toward
Australia’s share of history’s cruelty,
Reading of caravels with priests aboard
Who landed on Ormuz to hack a tree
Into the deadly stakes that served the sword
Of Christ the Merciful, his soldiery,
And captured Christians died, though, truth to tell,
Our Great Queen likewise would have marked for hell

All sailors who were not True Protestants
Had they been less intent to spread her name
World wide, in script light-footed as a dance
To us, but back in those days smoke and flame
Wreathed every letter. Be it high romance
Or merest greed, unless they’re both the same, 
That drove the ships of old, they crashed and burned
Or fed the fishes when they overturned,

The Portuguese, the Spaniards and the Dutch,
And all the times the English almost made
A landfall on our land-mass — it’s too much
Drowning to think about, a sad parade
That leaves you with a throat too dry to clutch,
Sensing the flesh dissolved, and bone decayed —
But really we should shift our starting date
To further in the past. It’s far too late

The way it is, and serves the fond idea
The cloudland of our gentle indigenes
Was wrecked when we decided to come here
To exercise our new-found ways and means:
Just name the day and Lo! We would appear
Out of the surf like Hollywood Marines
Sprinting ashore in roughly half the time
It takes to find a rhyme or plan a crime.

But it took centuries for men to find
The means of even failing on the waves;
It took the murderous patterns in the mind
That made a mockery of Jesus Saves;
Above all it took industry, the kind
That limes the sea lanes with a million graves.
The quick did not usurp the slow, the quick
Had just grown slightly slower to get sick.

Visit the flight deck? Asked, I always do
Not just because the toy trains never die
As thrill-providers, but because it’s true 
That how we sailed is still there when we fly,
In the controls. All that Magellan knew
Is in those panels, carried eight miles high
By turbo-fans whose climb to power began
With just the wind, and just the mind of man. 

How unimaginable the past seems.
When read about in detail! All that pain
With little gained or even less, the schemes
To get rich quick turned rotten by the rain —
Or ruined by the lack of it. All dreams:
Except the few that worked gave us this plane
We fly in now, our voyage just begun —
To catch the giant sling swung by the sun.


Standpoint, February 2012

Note (from Collected Poems)

In the excellent first-year English course at Sydney University we were meant to read Hakluyt’s Voyages and I made a big mistake in not doing so, because I would have been equipped to face a lot earlier the possibility that some of the best literature is composed with no literary ambitions in mind. Concrete engagement trumps abstract pretension every time, and everything in Hakluyt is strictly reportage, with specific detail the common currency. It makes an unbeatable resource for poetry. In my first manuscript of this poem I followed Hakluyt in calling the Portuguese ‘Portugals’ but my editor thought it looked like a misprint. The last line shows my fascination with the slingshot effect that the unmanned space vehicles get as they thread the orbits from one planet to the next.