The Ghost Ships
When the islander sold the corpse of his son
To Mr Banks of the Royal Society, we can only guess
What the transaction meant to him.
Necklaces of polished shell, breastplates scaled
With mother-of-pearl, cloaks of ten thousand scarlet
And indigo feathers (the death of flocks of tiny birds)
Were sold for a shining nail. For the return of
A stolen sextant, four men were taken hostage,
Men who spent a night in irons expecting
These apparitions of demonstrated savagery
And cruelty would slaughter them.
They had seen them do justice on their own people,
Lashing the white skin off their backs.
What would they do to strangers?
But in the morning, the sextant returned,
These pale, stinking, wolfish men were all
Smiles and affability, and seemed surprised
That they should take it hard.
The ships, the strange backward ships
With towering posts in the middle, instead of
At the ends, gliding in with the wind, reeking
Of urine and frying oil; the ships
Gliding in as if downhill, gliding in like the ghosts
Of friends abandoned in war.