The Darker Continent
Sestina for Elizabeth Bishop
Step off the pier and into the unknown,
flushed from the balmy cabin, out of breath,
piqued by dreams of a feathered samba dance,
your heart is like a squirrel in a cage,
preparing eagerly to test the dark:
the frontier you imagined ‘cross the sea.
What drove you to it then – to cross a sea,
put miles between you and that child unknown
blinking her solemn flashlight in the dark,
that girl who couldn’t draw a wheezy breath
in her grandparents’ blue-black cage,
twitching to a cruel St Vitus Dance?
It’s far behind you now, and yet the dance
of fat, warm, tropic raindrops on the sea
sounds uncertain: a panther in a cage
that bares its fangs to things unknown,
fears questions that are issued with hot breath,
waiting with bromeliads in the dark.
You find your lover waiting: pithy, dark,
swaggering to an aristocrat’s dance.
Kissing, you mingle with her salty breath;
it tastes to you like Nova Scotian sea.
And there you dare to share that love unknown:
two champs songbirds tucked in a lofty cage.
Happiness is often strangled by its cage –
both of you like your cachaça rum dark.
Bitter seeds of the past – all now, unknown
lend duende to your frenzied dance.
You go. She follows you. Crosses the asperous sea
to your shore. Takes her last, heavy breath.
Why do you never give this story breath?
You build between your words a private cage
that holds you just above the sucking sea.
You say that art is not worth the dark
shaking of skeletons into a dance –
and yet, you’re always skirting the unknown.
Once you caught your breath, did you call the dark?
Open the cage and join the jungle’s dance?
Find in the moiling sea, the great unknown?
Tegan Jane Schetrumpf
The Darker Continent was first published in Meanjin.