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Drake in the Southern Sea

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For Rafael Heliodoro Valle

I set out from the Port of Acapulco on the twenty-third of March
And kept a steady course until Saturday, the fourth of April, when
A half hour before dawn, we saw by the light of the moon
That a ship had come alongside
With sails and a bow that seemed to be of silver.
Our helmsman cried out to them to stand off
But no one answered, as though they were all asleep.
Again we called out: “WHERE DID THEIR SHIP COME FROM?”
And they said: Peru!
After which we heard trumpets, and muskets firing,
And they ordered me to come down into their longboat
To cross over to where their Captain was.
I found him walking the deck,
Went up to him, kissed his hands and he asked me:
“What silver or gold I had aboard that ship?”
I said, “None at all,
None at all, My Lord, only my dishes and cups.”
So then he asked me if I knew the Viceroy.
I said I did. And I asked the Captain,
“If he were Captain Drake himself and no other?”
The Captain replied that
“He was the very Drake I spoke of.”
We spoke together a long time, until the hour of dinner,
And he commanded that I sit by his side.
His dishes and cups are of silver, bordered with gold
With his crest upon them.
He has with him many perfumes and scented waters in crystal vials
Which, he said, the Queen had given him.
He dines and sups always with music of violins
And also takes with him everywhere painters who keep painting
All the coast for him.
He is a man of some twenty-four years, small, with a reddish beard.
He is a nephew of Juan Aquinas,* the pirate.
And is one of the greatest mariners there are upon the sea.
The day after, which was Sunday, he clothed himself in splendid garments
And had them hoist all their flags
With pennants of divers colors at the mastheads,
The bronze rings, and chains, and the railings and
The lights on the Alcazar shining like gold.
His ship was like a gold dragon among the dolphins.
And we went, with his page, to my ship to look at the coffers.
All day long until night he spent looking at what I had.
What he took from me was not much,
A few trifles of my own,
And he gave me a cutlass and a silver brassart for them,
Asking me to forgive him
Since it was for his lady that he was taking them:
He would let me go, he said, the next morning, as soon as there was a breeze;
For this I thanked him, and kissed his hands.
He is carrying, in his galleon, three thousand bars of silver
Three coffers full of gold
Twelve great coffers of pieces of eight:
And he says he is heading for China
Following the charts and steered by a Chinese pilot whom he captured ...

Notes:

*Juan Aquinas = John Hawkins

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This poem is based on a strictly historical account of the encounter with Drake written by a Spanish captain, in a letter to the Viceroy of New Spain, dated Realejo (Nicaragua), 1579.

Thomas Merton, “Drake in the Southern Sea” from The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton. Copyright © 1977 by The Trustees of the Merton Legacy Trust. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.
Source: The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (1977)
Drake in the Southern Sea

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  • Ernesto Cardenal was born in 1925 in Nicaragua and attended both the University of Mexico and Columbia University in New York. A former Catholic priest who studied in Kentucky with the scholar, poet, and Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Cardenal has been involved in the tumultuous political scene in Nicaragua, and Central America generally, since the 1960s. He was the Minister of Culture in Nicaragua from 1979-1988—a post for which he was publically reprimanded by the Vatican—and co-founded the Casas de las Tres Mundos, a literary and cultural organization based in Nicaragua. Cardenal recognizes that poetry and art are closely tied to politics, and has used his poetry to protest the encroachments of outsiders in Nicaragua, supporting the revolution that overthrew President Somoza in 1979. Cardenal continues to be a political figure both in Nicaragua and abroad. He has criticized the ruling government in Nicaragua, and the current incarnation of the...

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