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COLUMBUS DAY

©2001 John Kilgore

What we love is the Hollywood version:
The King tired, mind elsewhere, drumming his fingers,
The grandees clustered like skeptical buzzards,
A Capitan this and a Comisario that
And Don Diego Whatsisname who hates your guts,

And you:
Out-of-town hotshot with the fast pitch,
Talking India, talking Trade Routes, talking
Round Earth Theory;
Pacing the terra cotta like you own it,
All balls and brains, circumnavigation
In gold tights

And on that second throne, the Queen—
That Goya skin, those Reubens lips—
Listening, by God. Leaning forward, lace
Looping out from both hemispheres,
On purpose maybe, while those dark
Crucifying eyes say in perfect Italian,
Forget these stiffs, just sing to me, Baby.

So you talk sextants,
You talk colonies and gold and empire
Astrolabes, tea and spices,
Any damn thing you can think of—
Glories of the Faith, with a pitch
For Plymouth Rock between the lines—
While the King fidgets and looks for the major-domo
And Diego hawks in his pious beard
But then the Queen cries
Stop! He can have my jewels!
And the room goes so quiet
You hear a fly buzz.

So then you're off,
Already American as egg rolls,
Halfbaked, hellbent, scared green,
Sailing at the moon.
Three firesale ships with corny names,
A crew of hard cases even the Navy didn't want,
And brother Bart's usual lousy directions.
The patron saint of everyone
Who misses the turnoff and winds up in Cleveland;
Who flunks Geography and makes a fortune
Selling globes to grade schools.

You'll lose ships, catch fever; return goldless,
Tealess, spiceless, loaded
Mainly with new explanations:
"Navigational triumphs. Long-term potential."
The Queen turns bitchy and Inquisitorial, bad
As the dragons you took off her maps;
Takes Mass and cuts her losses
Sends out new governors in gray suits

While you keep looking.
Wave and helm and horizon, crossings
So long even the talk runs out;
The hulls get wormier, the crews more sullen.
You keep finding islands,
Natives staring in fifty languages,
Shoals where the fullgrown women stand
Nude as coral in the dreaming heat.
The shorebirds wheel, the noon sea glints like iron;
Voices call from the warm reefs,
But not with news of India, and finally even the name
Goes to Vespucci instead.

But still it's you who navigates
The memory, crossing somehow
The mistaken seas, the lapping centuries
Down to us.
Genius of our hopeful journeys,
After fifty decades green as ever,
Mapless, misinformed, and still looking;
Bless again our misadventures,
Past the missed exits, the wrong turns,
Closing in at last on Columbus:
Not what happened, but what always might:
A lost sailor chasing the moon,
Immigrant hustler with nothing to lose,
Daring the world's edge, betting the farm,
Making India come to you, Mohammed style.

 

John Kilgore teaches literature and creative writing at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He has published work in THE NEBRASKA REVIEW, MCCALL'S, NEBULA, SPACE AND TIME, THE RIVER KING POETRY SUPPLEMENT, and elsewhere. He won Illinois Artists Fellowships in 1987 and again in 1998 and published a small collection, IMPROBABILITIES in 1991. Currently he is seeking a publisher for his novel RADIO ROGER, a fantasy epic set in a universe where apocalypse has become a bad habit. He can be reached at cfjdk[AT]eiu.edu.

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Just in case:

Queen Isabella, Columbus' ally at the Spanish court, later became a prime sponsor of the Spanish Inquisition. That she financed C's expedition by selling her jewels is an American schoolyard myth. The names of his 3 ships, the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria, have to be memorized in grade school by American children. C's brother, Bart, was a mapmaker. America was named for Amerigo Vespucci, a mapmaker, though for a while the name "Columbia" was current. Columbus & Cleveland, obviously, refer to the cities in Ohio.