Isis at Caroni (Caroni Bird Sanctuary, Trinidad)
for Derek Walcott
The outboard, tuned a tight tenor,
ping-ponged like a thin metallic bird.
We slid through centuries of mangroves
propped on stilts over the still canal.
The pilot, an Indian named Nanan, lost me
with every turn down every channel,
in the reflection of the canopy’s gothic arch,
a chapel the heron purpled with its resilient beat
and sandpipers streaked with their white, hunched skitter.
Drifting through the wake of an egret’s passage
we entered the pyramid of light at channel’s end,
and the lake unscrolled, one green islet
mounded in the center, that the hills magnified.
We tied up at the fence of canes. No one spoke.
A yellow leaf sank through our reflection
into the lake’s long memory. Here, far
from that city whose lights were coming on,
whose traffic crawled over the map folded in my pocket,
we awaited the ibises’ return. Lifted from papyrus nightly
or from the tiles of a pharaoh’s tomb,
they wheeled, igniting the sun’s last flare, singly
or in pairs, or in whole flocks dipping under
the yellowed hem of a cloud. They settled, a scarlet flutter
that passed like a wave over the islet,
each bending a bough like a lit candle in the dusk.
Then we turned, our backs fading from the fading torch of birds,
half-blind, half-shadow ourselves among the trailing vines
and tightening hold of darkness on the trees. In one
a sloth, clamped on a high branch, uncurled
from a stunned afternoon of slumber.
But the channel widened, the canopy split,
and what day was left ruddied two ridges of clouds,
one piled overhead, one as deep below, so deep
we seemed to drift in some great, undiscovered
breach in the world, and we were left riding,
by some god’s grace, in mid-air. I had to grasp
the flaking rail to lean toward that abyss,
to trace one last bird’s gliding silhouette across
a cloud’s startled face, till I lost it under the hull,
when the space between millennia was thin as water,
when Isis required weeping after slain Osiris again
and met his ibises folded in their red, indifferent reply.
Copyright © Robert Bensen