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Names by Derek Walcott


My race began as the sea began,

with no nouns, and with no horizon,

with pebbles under my tongue,

with a different fix on the stars.

But now my race is here,

in the sad oil of Levantine eyes,

in the flags of Indian fields.

I began with no memory,

I began with no future,

but I looked for that moment

when the mind was halved by a horizon.

I have never found that moment

when the mind was halved by a horizon–

for the goldsmith from Bentares,

the stone-cutter from Canton,

as a fishline sinks, the horizon

sinks in the memory.

Have we melted into a mirror,

leaving our souls behind?

The goldsmith from Benares,

the stone-cutter from Canton,

the bronzesmith from Benin.

A sea-eagle screams from the rock,

and my race began like the osprey

with that cry,

that terrible vowel,

that I!

Behind us all the sky folded

as history folds over a fishline,

and the foam foreclosed

with nothing in our hands

but this stick

to trace our names on the sand

which the sea erased again, to our indifference.


And when they named these bays


was it nostalgia or irony?

In the uncombed forest,

in uncultivated grass

where was there elegance

except in their mockery?

Where were the courts of Castille?

Versailes’ colonnades

supplanted by cabbage palms

with Corinthian crests,

belittling diminutives,

then, little Bersailles

meant plans for a pigsty,

names for the sour apples

and green grapes

of their exile.

Their memory turned acid

but the names held;

Valencia glows

with the lanterns of oranges,


charred candelabra of coca.

Being men, they could not live

except they first presumed

the right of every thing to be a noun.

The African acquiesced,

repeated, and changed them.

Listen, my children say:

moubain:  the hogplum,

cerise:       the wild cherry,

baie-la:      the bay,

with the fresh green voices

they were once themselves

in the way the wind bends

our natural inflections.

These palms are greater than Versailles,

for no man made them,

their fallen columns greater than Castille,

no man unmade them

except the worm, who has no helmet,

but was always the emporer,

and children, look at these stars

over Valencia’s forest!

Not Orion,

not Betelgeuse,

tell me, what do they look like?

Answer, you damned little Arabs!

Sir, fireflies caught in molasses.

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