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© 2005 - 2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas. 





Note:  The Atoll

by William Jay Smith


The atoll mentioned in these poems is that of Palmyra, a thousand miles southwest of Honolulu and a few hundred north of the equator. A circular string of fifty-two small islets formed by the growth of coral on the rim of an extinct submerged volcano, the atoll measures a mile and a half in length and a half mile in width. It supports three times as many coral species as found in all Hawaii and three times as many of the species as reported in the entire Caribbean. When the U.S. Navy took over Palmyra in 1940, it was the property of the Fullard-Leo family of Honolulu and became an important air facility during World War II, the first stop for planes flying south of Hawaii. It was attacked in 1942 at the time of the Battle of Midway but a five-inch gun battery on the island drove off the attacking Japanese submarine. I arrived shortly after that on my first assignment as a U. S. Naval officer and remained for three months.


In 1947 the Fullard-Leo family took its claim of ownership to the U.S. Supreme Court and won, and the Navy gave up possession of the island. Over the years many offers to purchase the island were made, one proposing its use as a dump for nuclear waste and another to make it a gigantic gambling casino. But the family refused all offers until 2000 when they accepted that of the Nature Conservancy and the island was then designated a U. S. National and Wildlife Refuge. The then Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, who called it “a jewel of America’s coral reefs,” said that it “should be protected from exploitation and be a place where future generations can for all time marvel at the pristine wonders of the tropical seas.”


The supreme irony, of course, is that global warming, for which humanity is now recognized as largely responsible, is causing the death of the coral that built up this island on the rim of an extinct volcano. And so we will send the paradise we have saved back into the ocean from which it had come.  



The Flight


“Come,” the Captain said. “let me show you

how this place looks from the air.”

And I followed him to the monoplane, the little “cat”

waiting at the end of the runway.

We strapped ourselves in—he in front

and me behind—and soon the propeller began to turn

and we were off into space,

leaving the atoll and its blue lagoon below.


A sputtering of the engine,

a strong smell of oil, the constant swirl of air

over our faces, and the incessant shaking

of the plane, the voice of the radioman

on the island crackling through the static—

I lost all sense of time.

How long had we been up? Ten minutes,

fifteen, twenty, forty-five?. . .I was nodding

and slipping off into another world

when suddenly, loud and clear,

the Captain spoke to bring me back.

To the radioman he said, “We’d better find

our way down soon because we are running

out of gas.”. . . I clearly saw at once

the beginning of our end.


                                    And it was then

that the voices began to reach me—

faint at first, and fluttering

mothlike through consciousness,—

but gradually thickening, growing more distinct

and resonant—until they all got through to me

just as they had originally

when they had come from that other plane

that was trying desperately to find our island. . .

and were soon swallowed up by the sea.


How long had we been up? My whole life flew by in seconds,

and I knew that I was ready to answer

those voices rising from their deep well. . .

I would find those who had been unable to find me.

I would reach them easily now

wherever it was they had lain so long in wait.

I was prepared for our end, for the slap of the cold wave

and everything beyond. . .but first I turned aside

one final time, and—

miracle of miracles—

a bead-curtain of rain cut through the air

to reveal an open segment of sky

and below it an atoll and a blue lagoon.


The island garden flew up to greet us—

all its perfumes and water flowers encircling our faces—

as the plane brought us back to the coral strip

where great waves broke on the world’s edge,

and standing there at the reef”s very tip

I found the mind’s ever-present clear image

of that sleek tropic tree

one slender fronded branch

projected into infinity.              



The Garden


I knew that I had arrived in paradise:

The island was a garden but not a garden like Eden

with one terrace above another, reaching so high

that no deluge could ever touch it.

No, this was a Persian garden walled in by ocean;

from the edge of the lagoon, I stepped into a rainbow,

an ever-expanding universe of water flowers swirling in all directions.


The island possessed what the Hopi Indians claimed

were the prerequisites for paradise: water, hills, and trees.

The water announced itself at once: a clear pool shaded

by the tidal ripples dappling its surface,

clusters of shimmering purple coral stalks

rising from the bottom of the lagoon

each ending in a tiny golden ear of corn,

a kernel shielding a living creature inside.


The water was everywhere, but where were the hills?

Impossible to see them if I looked up not down.

I stood on the greenest hills imaginable—

the coral-encrusted rim of an extinct volcano

resting on the ocean floor,

so gazing down into the water I gazed

on the great green  hills from which I  had come.


And the trees? Perched on the coral rim was a narrow line

of palm trees and tropical shrubbery that formed a feathered crown

around the lagoon, and with the feathered crown, the birds,

nesting along the coral, hundreds of booby birds,

as clumsy as clowns until they rose majestically into the air,

air that elsewhere was adrift with flocks  of white and sooty terns,

a skein unwound in the breeze that swept up from the sea

to relieve the equatorial heat that beat down incessantly.


Clouds would gather along the island’s feathered crown

and the light rain that fell several times a day

became a bead-curtain I thrust aside

to peer into a blue-green, rainbow-edged world.

And I knew when I did that I had come to an earthly paradise,

caught outside of time, constantly refreshed and reforming.




copyright © 2008 by William Jay Smith


These poems are from Words by the Water by William Jay Smith, to be published in October 2008 by the Johns Hopkins University Press.