The Idea of Wallace Stevens at Key West

I am walking beside the sea that fluttered its
empty sleeves and whose dark voice spoke
to one who made it an image of inconstancy.

On a coral key you cannot dig a grave,
therefore these whitewashed, stacked
sarcophagi. A tour bus passes as I try to read

the names through black iron railings, urns
with artificial flowers, decaying foliage;
a breath of wind in the bedraggled palms

like incessant rumor-mongering. Most
are Cuban names, names of those who
never made it back, but sat on wooden porches

in Olivia Street as roosters crowed,
chickens scratched, and the click and clack of dominoes
presaged their sepulchers,

bookending birth and death with a woman’s name—
Mary Louise Baez (‘the sunshine of our home’)
or Angelina P Oropeza (‘No greater mother ever lived’),

sentiments echoing in my head when I stop
at the Dollar Store on Truman Street for water,
glimpse the strip club opposite

called Bare Assets, and push on
to Reynolds Street where Wallace Stevens

Only the sea remains the same,
its answering yet unavailing constancy
at the end of a nondescript suburban street,

no hint of money as ‘a kind of poetry’,
and the Casa Marina across from the tennis courts
like a prison for white collar criminals.

The same black wrought iron railing
that surrounds the cemetery encloses a white sand
private beach, but there’s no Pale Ramon,

accompanying a business man in a Panama,
finding order in the ocean’s ambiguity,
only a freshening wind

and a shrimp boat on the Gulf
as full throttle, jet skis buck the broken waves
and thunderclouds like anvils

build toward evening when they may
or may not break, and the man in espadrilles
and his ghostly companion pad back to their hotel

with an image in mind that will
in another generation overwhelm
a poet in the antipodes

inhaling the smell of kelp
and facing the same reality
of which direct knowledge is impossible.

Michael Jackson is known internationally for his work in the fields of existential anthropology, philosophical anthropology and ethnographic writing. He has done extensive fieldwork in Sierra Leone since 1969 and has carried out anthropological research in Aboriginal Australia, Europe and New Zealand. He has taught in universities in New Zealand, Australia, the United States and Denmark and is presently Distinguished Professor of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School.

In New Zealand, he is best known for his poetry and creative non-fiction; Latitudes of Exile was awarded the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1976, and Wall won the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry in 1981. Recent books include Midwinter at Walden Pond (poetry), The Other Shore: Essays on Writers and Writing and Harmattan (fiction). His memoir, The Accidental Anthropologist, was published in 2006, and his Selected Poems is forthcoming.

Jackson comments: ‘I have always felt the need to refer my poems, as Basho does, to a place, time or event that brought it into being; to acknowledge that poems are not just texts, but have contexts. Poems are like windows that give us a glimpse of a world we travel through all too quickly. I think of Colin McCahon’s Northland Panels; the paintings stop you in your tracks, each one transcending time and circumstance while firmly rooted in mundane realities.

‘“The Idea of Wallace Stevens at Key West” was written during a visit to the Florida keys, and is part of a longer poem whose title pays homage to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Four Key West Poems. In the 19th century, Key West was famous as a second home for Cuban exiles planning to liberate the island from Spanish colonial rule; in the long interim they made a living rolling cigars, and in their leisure played dominoes. Key West was also a home away from home for several notable American writers, including Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams (who co-founded The Waterfront Playhouse).’

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New Zealand Book Council writer file