Poems from the Galapagos

A Voyage to the Encantadas
Frederick Turner

On the March

Old travelers can never quite distinguish
The little death of parting from the great.
What am I doing, crossing half the world
Again, as if I weren’t sixty-eight?

I played in bombed-out houses as a boy,
Remember sirens from the V-1 blitz.
Those wars are now just ancient history;
Waking these days, I feel I’ve lost my wits.

My father was a true adventurer.
In Africa I rode his shoulders, smelt
The Dad-smell of his hair—and that was when
I found that I could write down what I felt.

My mother was a whaler in her ‘eighties,
Out on the ice, with the Inupiat;
And here I’m quaking like an anxious lover,
Or what we used to call a scaredy-cat.

And now my own companion is my son,
A marathoner, and an army vet.
If that great parting comes, what could be better
Than on the old march, and without regret?

The Seventh Continent

In 1943 I first saw Europe,
Then Africa in 1951.
And ten years later, North America
Blazed on the ocean with the setting sun.

Asia was next, first tragic Palestine,
And then, in time, the greater Orient.
I saw the dawn break on Mount Taranaki;
One more hour now, my life’s last continent.

I want to love this planet through and through,
Before the time comes when I take my leave;
I saw its curvature today, a world of blue,
A loveliness I never could conceive.

The Altars of Quito

Now Cotopaxi glimmers over rows
Of tailfins in this brilliant Quito light.
What can I say about this high-perched city
Whose air, drawn thirstily, is thin and bright

As those empyreans of the altarpiece
That blaze forever beyond saint and cross?
How to convey this flash of opposites,
The perfect middle, source, and terminus,

Compacted of the Moors, the Quechua, and Spain,
The Holy Roman Empire, and the hopes
Of all those new republics, and the dreams
Of Incas, mad hidalgos, crafty popes?

Some places must commemorate extremes,
Where humans come up stark against the edge,
Where we can scarcely breathe, where hot and chill
We shake in fever on this cosmic ledge.

The Abundant Tree

I wake at anchor in this bird-flocked cove.
It’s sixty years since I was given to see
Dawn on Ascension Island turn to milk,
Rose, lemon, pastel, all that fresh-made sea.

Did Darwin feel that ancient human chill
Of strange delight, after so many shores?
–Or rediscover what the genes all knew
Already, in their many metaphors

Of multibranching cactus, portulaca,
In lineages of iguana, seal,
Great tortoise, finch, and sea lion barking there,
Each species-vision vying to be real?

What in the vision of that nine-year-old
That I was then, survived to catch me now?
What essence was it in the branched nerve-cells
Could live and breed so long, and if so, how?


Death, also, was a part of Darwin’s view.
If each life is a branch on a great tree,
Then death is but a pruning, a release,
To open up the species, set it free.

Upon the white beach of that pleasant bay,
The sea lions, careless of our feet, slept still,
Fed fat with fish that had in turn been gorged
On smaller fish, fresh from their feast of krill.

And each time there’s a kill, the killers live
Lives that are richer still with love and mind:
The sea lions sing and cuddle, fight and play,
And make a being of another kind.

Should I, then, know my coming end to be
The place where my mind’s flesh will be a feast
For something sweeter, of more love, than me,
A transmigration—or a gift, at least?


Beneath me was a turtle, cruising on.
I flew in water bluer than the sky.
This thing so clumsy, primitive on land,
Became a gliding angel in the sea.

Mammals (Blood Kin)

Swimming with sea lions by the reef I see
That once upon a time our furry mother
Nursed a warm brood: one pup gave rise to me,
And one, who liked the water, to my brother.

The Paradise Myth

The strange story of Doctor Ritter and
His lover Dora Stauch makes me think twice.
With steel false teeth in place of real ones
They set out to return to Paradise.

They gardened, nude, beside their ferny caves,
That look out over trees, lagoons, and sea.
And others came then, seeking to be healed
Of all the pain of our humanity.

And then the Baroness, with her two lovers,
Arrived in Eden, armed with a revolver,
In riding boots, and smoking a cigar.
The stories differ now that it’s all over,

But murders surely happened, poisoned deaths,
Starvation, loss at sea, madness and pain:
We can’t go back, the Fall must always happen,
We can’t go back to Paradise again.

He Fathers Forth

Ben shepherds me, with tacit gentleness,
Makes sure I don’t get parted from the rest.
I see myself, the old eccentric poet,
Who won’t be ruled by somebody’s behest.

Perhaps he likes in me (as I in him)
The spontaneity of who we are.
And if there’s a creator of this all,
Maybe he’s given every shell and star

The same gift, that of shared and self-creation,
So the iguanas learned to swim, the finches
Grew beaks to eat the cactuses and seeds,
And tortoises put on their endless inches.

My dear and I did not create our son:
It was the very process, liberty
Itself; that I now see, as Goethe did,
As love, that rich and ever-changing sea.

On the Move

Cloud-shadows drift across these vast
Volcanic slopes where no-one dwells. No eye
Of man can see the bud-tip swell, the nest
The warbler builds beneath the deep blue sky.

The waves as always rise in white-foam rhyme
Upon the basalt cliffs. Process persists,
Though real change just takes its own sweet time.
Each thing has one test, whether it exists.

Why do we love the absence of ourselves?
Why must our paradise be abnegation?
Is it that we are formed such by extinction,
And given being by eradication?

The God of the Iguanas

On the black basalt beaches’ rocks and sand
Before the blinding radiance of the sun
A thousand lava-black iguanas stand
Half–raised upon their forefeet, all as one.

Their stone-mailed faces, with dull half-closed eyes,
Ecstatic in a mild reptilian grin,
Worship their god’s diurnal fall and rise
As the long tides go slowly out and in.

Each black tail is the shadow of its crest.
They do not move. No membrane flicks across
Their pupils. Some have climbed upon the rest
To focus on their fiery terminus.

I stand before them, their announced messiah,
Arms raised, a preacher, for a photograph
That may go viral if it catches fire;
But they ignore me, and we should not laugh.

Crossing the Line

The sun goes down on the unseen equator.
Here human math is strangely actual.
Mind is immanent in the universe.
Creation keeps its logic in its fall.

The View Point

As seeing makes me be, so being seen
Is an event in the world’s history.
Back in the mainland now, we stand between
The land air and the moist air of the sea,

An immense crater filled with shifting mist
Before us, and a dry hillside behind.
A chilly gust now parts the dim white curtain,
Revealing far below a shadow-land

Of tiny fields and farms, all gentle green,
Hiatus of two worlds, where a strange third
Emerges at the throat of the great fire
That birthed these mountains with its molten word.

The crater’s shell is an enormous ear
That cups the sound. We hear a young cock crow
Fully a mile away and a mile down.
A woman calls a boy, it’s time to go.

The mist billows, that strange world disappears,
Though still it softly speaks, and suddenly
Another valley from another time
Reshapes its being in my memory.