Isis at Caroni
Caroni Bird Sanctuary, Trinidad
for Derek Walcott
by Robert Bensen
The outboard, tuned a tight tenor,
ponged like a thin metallic bird
trailing us through centuries of mangroves
propped on stilts over the still canal.
Our guide, an Indian named Nanan, lost me
with every turn of his wrist down every channel,
in the reflection of the canopy’s gothic arch,
a chapel the heron purpled with its resilient beat
and sandpipers streaked with their white, hunched skitter.
Drifting through the wake of an egret’s passage
we entered the pyramid of light at channel’s end,
and the lake unscrolled, one green islet
mounded in the center, that the hills magnified.
We tied up at the fence of canes. No one spoke.
A yellow leaf sank through our reflection
into the lake’s brief memory. Here, far
from the lights coming on in Port of Spain,
whose traffic crawled over the map folded in my pocket,
we awaited the ibises’ return. Lifted from papyrus nightly
or from the tiles of a pharaoh’s tomb,
they wheeled, igniting the sun’s last flare, singly
or in pairs, or in whole flocks dipping under
the yellowed hem of a cloud. They settled, a scarlet flutter
that passed like a wave over the islet,
each bending a bough like a lit candle in the dusk.
We turned, our backs fading from the fading torch of birds,
half‑blind, half‑shadow ourselves among the trailing vines
and tightening hold of darkness on the trees.
A sloth, clamped on a high branch, uncurled
from a stunned afternoon of slumber.
But the channel widened, the canopy split,
and what day was left ruddied two ridges of clouds,
one piled overhead, one as deep below, so deep
we seemed to drift in some great, undiscovered
breach in the world, and we were left riding,
by some deific grace, in mid‑air. I had to grasp
the flaking rail to lean into that abyss,
to trace one last bird’s gliding silhouette across
a cloud’s startled face, till I lost it under the hull,
when the space between millennia was thin as water,
when Isis inquired weeping after slain Osiris
and met his ibises folded in their red, indifferent reply.
Previously published in The Caribbean Writer 5 (1991).
PHOTO: Scarlet Ibis, Caroni Bird Sanctuary, Trinidad. Photo by Ondřej Prosický, used by permission.
NOTE: Trinidad is the larger and more populous of the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. Located 6.8 miles off the northeastern coast of Venezuela, Trinidad is often referred to as the southernmost island in the West Indies. With an area of 1,981 square miles, it is the fifth largest island in the West Indies. Trinidad has over 400 species of birds, including the scarlet ibis, one of the two national birds of Trinidad and Tobago. This medium-sized wader is a hardy, numerous, and prolific bird, with protected status around the world.
PHOTO: Scarlet ibis, Trinidad. Photo by Abraham Badenhorst, used by permission.
Map courtesy of orangesmile.com.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: A few miles from Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, the Caroni Swamp is the nightly roost of a huge flock of scarlet ibis. At dawn, they take off across the strait to spend the day in Venezuela, and at sunset they return to the trees of the island at the swamp’s center. Visitors can take a boat with Nanan through the mangrove channels to a vantage point for the twice-daily flight of the birds. Whenever they appear—their scarlet emerging from the green trees, or vanishing into them at the day’s end—the sight is otherworldy and outside of time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert Bensen is a poet, essayist, teacher, editor, and publisher in Upstate New York. Most recent among six collections of poetry are Before and Orenoque, Wetumka & Other Poems (Bright Hill Press). Poetry and literary essays have appeared in AGNI, Akwe:kon, Antioch Review, Berfrois, Callaloo, The Caribbean Writer, Jamaica Journal, La presa, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Poetry Wales, and elsewhere. He has edited anthologies of Native American and Caribbean literature, and authored a bibliographic study, American Indian and Aboriginal Canadian Childhood Studies, at Oxford University Press online. His writing has won fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Harvard University, the State of New York, Illinois Arts Council, the Robert Penn Warren Award, and others. From 1978 to 2017, he was Professor of English and Director of Writing at Hartwick College (Oneonta, New York). He conducts the community-based poetry workshop Seeing Things at Bright Hill Press and Literary Center (Treadwell, New York). He is the founding editor of two literary presses, the Red Herring Press and Woodland Arts Editions. Find more of his work at robertbenson.com.