The Spirit of the Island

by Caroline Bird

How many times

have humans moistened their quills
with the butt of a dewy tongue
to curve their warm dark ink
across the blank stare
of an open page, conjuring graceful
sweeping calligraphy, recording
their wounded knowledge
in the hope it will preserve
dignity in others?
The dignity they swapped for their
How many tasty mottos
have we branded on gravestones,
hoisted up on bloody flags?
Truth will out. Peace for all men.
How many times have we defended our world
by cutting her roots, stem by stem,
step by moon-boot step?
So, this is another parable, of sorts.
Written on rain-forest paper,
jotted with octopus-juice.
A parable about the nobility of whales,
the aloof shuffling of the clouds,
the shaking, drunken head
of the wet daffodil.
A parable about money and sex and power
and other ghosts.

The spirit was here, in the beginning,
when the mountains were still growing
and you could smell pollen on the sea,
before the bees learnt to sting, before
the kangaroos had that nasty land-mine accident
that makes them jump involuntarily, before
the sharks got their teeth sharpened
and the rain got so depressed. The spirit was here
when the streets were lined with cradles
and the kings were chewing quietly on rusks,
thinking of cuddles. The spirit was here
when the pride of the rolling hills
flavoured the water, and the matronly wind
slapped your ankles with controlled affection.
The spirit was here
when God was still commonly known
as the moisture in the koala-bears eye,
or the petal on the tide, before he got blown
out of all proportion and the world began
to rot in hard-line mythology:
Money is power. People are dispensable. Love hurts.
I washed my burden in the ocean
and the water ran black with ink.
What follows are the words, the smudgy grubby words,
I read on the dazzling sand...

We begin with an historical aside.

An Elizabethan sailor shuttered his eyes
with his hand, had a fleeting thought
about some kind of tinted glass eye wear
that might make sunshine easier,
then OOPS he spied land.

“Lower the sails, lads, it’s the cutest island,
shaped like codpiece, and bright blue! It’s bright blue!
And deserted? Perhaps the people are away, swimming.
I wonder if they’re also bright blue? Or pea-green?
Chaps, this’ll cover the travel expenses, didn’t I say
the world was full of mystery?”

They nudged the tip of their ship
into the fleshy shore, the sea
seemed to grunt, struggle, but they
thrusted on, plunging their metal anchor.
“We’re in!” They said, “let’s disembark
and fry some salted meat!”
But then, the great unknown
reared her startled head.

The island began to sink, right there,
beneath their boots,
it began to shake and splutter.
For a second the captain thought
the islanders must live underground -
in coal-mines perhaps,
buried industrial factories
with shuddering blue machinery.
But he was wrong.
He fainted into the arms of the first mate,
screaming ‘God save us!’
Their boat suddenly looked like a toy.
Their puny feet
clad in leather and whatnot,
their badges of honour, just children
dressing up, their quivering little moustaches.
And the big, blue whale,
she was a mother, a daughter of the deep,
she knew the power of oxygen,
the almighty gulp of the never-ending cool.
Humans were a scratchy dream,
ants wriggling across her shoulder,
she was so much older
than this
silly, finders-keepers game.
She shrugged them off, and calmly
sank away.
The men in britches panicked in the water,
screaming “The island is a monster!”
They didn’t know about whales, other
living breathing creatures.
They just saw islands, and dry land, and places
to rest their tired satchels.
But now, they were freckles in the ocean,
their altar-boy voices
lost in the direction-less sky.

I was young then, a whisper
in the slow-blinking tropics,
and I laughed at the little men
trying to mount a whale,
I thought - humanity must be
the least seductive creature,
just look at their pale, pale skin
and their copied minds. But
then they aimed their pale thoughts
at my island, and everything went
dark, dark red.

There are good spirits,
and there are bad spirits.
There are spirits who laugh and cry
in the front-row, praying
for a miracle.
I could have warned them.
I couldn’t have warned them.
I am the spirit of the licked embankment,
the spirit of the lapping rocks,
this is the story of my island,
and her descent
into the sea.

On the slippery back of a storm, a whale-hunter
accidentally found my island.
His boat punched a blow-hole in the beach.
He was windswept and crispy, with a mind
like a boy just out of college, ready
for the golden road, ready to be enlightened.
He christened her ‘The Pleasant Island.’
And he smiled all around, like a lighthouse,
in Birmingham, Bombay and Brussels,
you felt his smile.

My island was already occupied
with rare, natural beings, folks
who nibbled rainbow fishes
from precious bones, cracked groves
into mangoes, sucked out the juice,
lived close to the sun, making plans
with the trees, fingering
their assets, fruit and the sea.

Like a friendly grandfather
teaching his grandson to whittle a flute,
the Whaler felt warmly obliged
to take them over his knee.
He invited his western friends,
all the lads: Scissor-legs Charlie,
Bruiser Bill, Drill-tooth James...
brought in more whaling ships, some traders,
opened a sandy crate of ale
and stood, proud like a statue,
one boot on another man's back,
laughing at the horizon.

My islanders pinched themselves, love-struck,
ran around, fetching coconut cups
for everyone, pouring drinks.
Some of the elders were resistant, prejudiced,
cut massive hollows into tree-trunks
and hid there, crying.
But the boys fetched their spears
and skipped like giggling schoolgirls
to the camp fire,
shouting “look what I made!”
and “can I hold your gun?”
Bruiser Bill built a mini assault course,
with swinging ropes
and wooden men, for target practice.
Drill-tooth James got chummy
with a local girl, gently tilted her face
to his beaker of rum.
My islanders didn’t even think
about fishing, babies got left, forgotten,
in quaking canoes... a few shots
were mistakenly fired
into citizen skin; one islander,
who cheated at dice, was slightly knee-capped,
then war broke out. It was kinda fun
at first, dramatic, Scissor-legs Charlie
held a dying boy in his arms
like a hero and lied “sonny,
you’ll live to kill another land-crab!”
But after nine years, Bruiser Bill suggested
getting the hell out.
My islanders were wild-eyed, swapping
their juvenile ibija fish for fire-arms and booze
like the world was on a timer,
attacking passing pirates
for their gold teeth.

When the guns were sleeping
to the sad clarinet
of the endemic reed warbler,
the western lads legged it.
Scissor-legs Charlie
snagged his foot in a man-trap,
now they call him Bendy-peg Chip.
They whispered up the sails, shushing
each other, like cub-scouts
having a secret skinny-dip…
they rippled farewell with their backwash.
In the moonshine,
she looked like a spirit island, hovering an aura
over the treacle-black goo...

I opened my mouth to speak to them,
but they only heard the tremble
of their own lips, faltering spirits.

At the crossroads of the harbour,
they passed a ferry of drunk Germans, eating
sausage sandwiches on deck,
singing ‘Life is a rail road to heaven,’
or ‘Das Leben ist eine Eisenbahn zum Himmel.’
The boys asked wherefore they wandered,
and Hans, the captain, aired a phlegmy laugh:
“Pleasant Island!” then something
that sounded like “Stag Night!”
Bendy-peg Chip tightened the tourniquet
around his bleeding stump, ignored
his culpable pistol, spitting:
“Don’t go there, laddy,
they’ll have your guts for garters…
fucking crazy foreigners!”

Eventually, the war dislodged itself
from my island
like an extra, rusty chromosome.
The elders fell, dead, from the trees,
their cold noses pronged into the ground
like frozen hens, forever pecking.
A bad fairy had come in the night
with a throne
and a make-shift parliament
and a primitive canteen; a man patrolling
the beach, writing orders on a massive scroll:
Fish soup, fish pie, risotto a la fish.
Hans, the German Captain,
had breakfast with my island’s new king...
a stern man with shaking, hidden, appendages.
Hans said: “Are you familiar with the word annexer?
It’s a middle English word via Old French,
taken from the Latin annectre
which means ‘to bind.”

The King ordered more fish-cakes.
Hans continued: “Germany wants to bind itself to you,
become your back-garden, your extra library,
your sexy Siamese twin. We’d like to offer you
an annex. What do you say?”
The King had his mouth full, then
a cloud popped with blood, a flood flashed,
an explosion of feathers yelled ‘trickery,’
or ‘victory,’ and somewhere in the hustle,
some papers got signed,
perhaps by the wind.

My island became a marshal island, a cog
in the speeding clock, consensual,
cross-continent, sexual relations…
Then the missionaries arrived
in their tweedy collars, singing
“Who needs the Jungle Book
when you have the Bible?”
So they scribbled out ‘losses,’
scribbled in ‘Gods will.’
While in conference rooms,
under dusty lapels, empty hearts
were screaming for innards. So,
a buff Australian, Brad, surfed over
to say: “G’day... World War...
ain’t that a kick in the head?”
Then the Germans swapped
with the Australians, high-fiving by the door,
and my island made space
in her tiny bed, slept with her nose
banging softly on the wall.

In the process of rolling over, a stitch
snapped in her hip
and my island, like a sweet,
or a blood-ball, gushed her soft centre
all over the shoes
of the League of Nations,
who promptly took their shoes to the lab
for chemical testing and JACKPOT!
My island was crammed
with fertilizing, match-making goodness,
a big phosphate doughnut
oozing cash…

So the League of Nations
stuffed a sock down his pants,
after-shaved his Adam’s apple
and hung out at the Pleasant Island
Bingo Hall, crooning:
“Come on baby,
the bombs are flying in hurricane city,
there are corpses in trenches and smog
on your tongue, put a little justice
back in your universe, shake it,
exploit your reserves.”

If an abstract being
can become more invisible,
I began to fade, my thoughts
sketched lighter on the breeze
like discarded advice, I wondered
how a spirit could feel
so disembodied.

My tender girls grew fierce jaw-lines,
my boys learnt skin and bone
can jingle in your pouch
like coins. Wriggling down
the inner thigh of my island,
with hard-hats, pick-axes,
slicing the fingers and toes
off their homeland, shipping
them to leaders with drooling wallets.
In for a penny, in for a pounding.
And why not?

The world was joining the circus,
white-blond action-men with awkward salutes
expanding their stilts
to totter across Atlases,
shouting about freaks. The second
in the trilogy, World War Two.
When God cast a vote of no-confidence,
and Mr Banzai appeared on the beach,
with a large remote-control plane,
a life-size game of Risk.
The sky was no longer
a swimming-pool for birds.
My islanders were a different race,
eyes like car-doors locking, the dead smile
that holds the calm, calm face
after the rough, rough beating.

Though the earth is not a park
you’d unleash your puppy in,
all humans dream of bare-foot dangling
on midnight piers in small towns
with zero crime and late bars,
just you and your sneaky cigarette.
Self-rule. In the sixties, illusions
came in red-taped documents,
milk and honey was rice and beans.
The island brandished her lipstick,
scrawled ‘fuck you’ on the mirror,
burnt that itchy western bra
and governed solo, swinging free.

Do you remember, sweet rock,
when love was building bridges?
When you and me meant ‘us’
and the tower of Babel
was just the right height?
Back over the sober clouds
when rainbows sucked backwards
to the yawning sun,
when my spirit-breath
was the benevolent air
and you were my island, singing:
‘Don’t you know that it’s worth
every pleasure on earth
to be young at heart?’
But the conveyor belts were whirring
in the red-lights of the coral reef,
bringing explosive beach-balls,
Polynesian rats. Your trudging fate
just dying to teach you
about yourself.

First, diamond tankers brought hamburgers,
grit in your eyes was pure cocaine,
weighing scales told your weight in gold.
But never kiss a hungry man
right on the mouth.
My islanders ate and ate away,
chucking soil over their shoulders so fast
the sky got buried.
Eventually, their spades hit bone.
The phosphate ran out.
Those who once scraped caviar from their fingernails
now clawed at the smooth glass
of that silent fortress: foreign aid.

Australia leant over, cigar in hand,
and gently tapped his ash.
My island became a dumping ground
for immigrants with frayed rope-ladders
who fell on the wrong side of luck
and couldn’t scale that wall, not again.
Paradise became a detention centre.
Souls forbidden to return.

Now, two hundred years later,
they crawl back to their cobwebbed canoes…
but the fish have evolved,
carry rape-alarms, travel in gangs,
it’s like fishing for dreams.
My islanders have magnets under their skin,
scrap-metal flies from all four corners.
But the drooping eyelid
of the half-moon still drags the sea,
the endless endgame, erosion and ruin.
They live on the outskirts of themselves,
wincing fingertips on wastelands,
violated and to blame.

And I am weak with tears.
No longer a Sea Goddess,
just a goddess
cursed to see.

Far below this Lego land; plastic
radios squeaking tinny joy, fat men
driving thin cars, cloth flowers
in the jaws of glum vases on high-rise
balconies, lying to gravity,
Far below, on the sea-bed,
the whales are preparing…
Laying down clean sheets, baking quiches,
placing coasters on conches,
for when the ice-cap spikes the bubble
and my people gurgle down to join them…

they intend to be civilized.