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From All Electrons Are (Not) Alike
A view of the sea is the beginning of the journey. An image of Columbus, starting out from the abyss, enters the left hemisphere. Profusion of languages out of the blue. Bluster, blur, blubber. My father was troubled by inklings of Babel and multiplication on his table. Afraid that an overload of simultaneous neural firings would result in an epileptic convulsion. The explorers’ attention, like the foot of a snail, held on to the planks of their vessels, not communicating. Too intent on the physical fact, waves, whales, or poison arrows. Later, though, poured forth stories never dreamed of by the natives. As if languages were kidnapped as easily as green shady land profuse of flowers. 

Pigafetta in the Philippines, Antonio, the exception. Amid sharks and shattered masts sharpened his pencil. For if a man has not learned a language can he have memories? Pointed at parts of the body and shaped a body of words: samput, paha, bassag bassag, buttock, thigh, shank, the “shameful” parts, utin and bilat, as well as ginger, garlic, cinnamon. The natives stared at the document. Unblinking. Thinking, my father thought, to distinguish its parchment body from blemishes in ink rather than title, preamble, or appendices. Perhaps rather troubled with doubt. Scorching air may refute grammatical relationship as much as movement from Vicenza to Mactan, though the speed of nerve signals increases if the organism gets warm, and the creature becomes excited, perhaps delirious. Yet when an object has never been seen back home what good is a word? You have to bring the thing itself and empty your bag to make conversation.

Merchants of language travel with paper currency. Columbus’s fleet had no priest, but had a recorder. Transactions with eternity less pressing than “legality” secured by writing. The power to name. When I was ten I read Westerns by Karl May and with him crossed the border between Mexico and Canada. Columbus erased heathen names like Guanahaní. Christened the islands to become king of the promised land. As Adam, who “called the animals by their true names,” was thereby to command them. San Salvador. Salvation, salve, salvage, salvo. The power to name is power. Especially when backed by guns.

The history of discoveries is Columbus’s story of traps, mishaps, constant hurt. Of loaded dice. Outcome like reflection of clouds on ice. And once he set foot back on the continent of the past tense, the kingdom of certainty: what had Columbus found? For Ferdinand and Isabella who hoped to travel to the Indies? A packet of islands off China, vulgar pebbles a dog might worry in hot weather. Though pearls for eyes that see his steering wheel environ a round earth turning on its axis like a wheel of fortune on which more than limbs are broken. The rhythm of the midriff so closely linked to vapors of the mind. Diaphragm, frenzy, frantic, phrenology (discredited), and schizophrenia. And on the next page, my father says, a wall is still a wall, but rivers and crocodiles enlarge the landscape. 

Rosmarie Waldrop's new book of poems, The Nick of Time, is forthcoming from New Directions in fall 2021. Recent books are Gap Gardening: Selected Poems (LA Times Book Prize in Poetry 2017), Driven to Abstraction, and Curves to the Apple (all New Directions).