The moon is thin and poised like a curlew’s beak–
all bone. Hanging over the ocean, the abbey.
We watch the sea birds being swept by the wind
and I try to tell you about all my life you’ve missed.
There are still so many sentences I can’t reach.
I know that out on the water, welcomed home,
is a replica of the ship they took my ancestors in–
to sugar plantations for former slave owners.
The Whitby, sailing from India to the Caribbean,
a stale silence blowing in off the water to greet her.
Coming back here is like mutely looking down
on my own odd body as it moves without me.
Nothing is familiar. This loved, blank cliff
is a memorial stone with the names bleached out.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2020. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2020 was Janette Ayachi.
This poem pulses, and perhaps breaches its own expectations; it starts with the moon and ends with erosion. As we imagine the ship we are called to scan our past for answers, to commune with our ancestors, a kind of conjuring through ancient landscapes. We too compass a sense of belonging and unbelonging, as the poem might inspire us to plan pilgrimages ourselves, to give thanks because just as easily as life could be carried in, it could also be wiped out. Just as we are left at the end, one line shorter than the other stanzas, ‘nothing is familiar’, names are taken too soon. I have read some of this newly emerging poets’ work before in Middleground, a fantastic online journal for BAME writers, and I was just as stunned then, as I am now.
‘The Whitby’ is a sonnet about reckoning with the colonial ties of a place that I love. It’s also about how personal and colonial histories are lost between the generations and from the collective consciousness. The Whitby was one of the first boats that transported indentured labourers from India to Guyana in the 1800s; although the ship replica mentioned in the poem is, in reality, a replica of a different ship: the Endeavour (Captain Cook’s ship).