- The Tally
They’re counting nails, barrels of salt pork, sacks of tea & sugar, links of hemp, bolts of cloth with dead colors, the whole shape & slack of windy sails down to galley planks & clapboard hued by shame. They’re raising & lowering an anchor clustered with urchins, wondering if sandstone can be taught a lesson if inscribed with names & proclamations. Snuff, powdered wigs— redcoats run hands over porcelain & silverware. They’re uncrating hymnals, lace, volumes of Hobbes, Rousseau, & kegs of rum. Rats scurry across the deck down the wharf, & a gaggle of guinea fowl calls to lost sky from a row of slatted boxes. Knives & forks, wooden pegs, balls of twine, vats of tallow, & whet stones. They’re counting women & men: twenty-two prostitutes, ten pickpockets, one forger, countless thieves of duck eggs & black bread. A soldier pries open a man’s fists to tally twelve marigold seeds— here for lobbing off a half pound of butter. Deck hands winch in the drag of lines. A young officer surveys the prettiest women, before [End Page 28] stashing The Collected Quotationsof Pythagoras for the governor. Albatross perched on the mast await another burial at sea, shadowing a stoic nightingale in a bamboo cage mended with yarn where a red-headed woman kneels, whispering his song to him.
Yusef Komunyakaa is author of six collections of poems, including Dien Cai Dau, Magic City, and Neon Vernacular, which received the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and the Kingsley Tufts Award. He teaches at Indiana University, Bloomington.