© 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.
“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.
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.