The Black Drop

1 August 2015

Suddenly they’re churning away from the misty sounds
in the little barque, drying books jawed-up with specimens

such as the tough leaf of a cabbage tree Joseph Banks
and Dr Solander classified according to Linneaus’

look book and named Coryline banksii because Banks
who lost his trousers one hot night in Tahiti

is paying. In the clammy cabin – clothes lines of blotters –
he frets at the needling New Zealand rainfall:

damp will humus the specs as if they’d never left
their forest and then what would be the point? Above all

the prizes must arrive home dry. (In Tahiti by contrast
the books were onion-skin under the Transit’s moon.)

Days later on the boxy coast of terra nullius, Banks croaks
a private plea to Father Linné (Jesus of the leaf, mentor

to Dr Solander), Guide me! And the barometer rises
like Eastertime. Meanwhile (no one knows this)

George III’s Yankee penal colony will soon be dead,
long live the penal colony. And Banks steps ashore

at Botany Bay. He dries the drying books open and open
under the fierce sun. By nightfall, saved, but more

cursedness: the Endeavour is broken, dry-docked,
the two remaining artists poorly (one died in Tahiti).

For seven weeks while the cartographer perfects his lines
and Cook his book of swells all hazy with experiment,

Banks and Solander, solid with their ballast of Latin,
light on the red turf, their green and pleasant Bible

held up against the continent and they find, classify,
name, take, for science’s sake and for London

where the repurposed coal hulks anchored off-shore fester
with felons, the streets glister with whisky and piss.

The jewel of their findings – well there’s the Eucalypt –
a fat cock ridged in bumps, nothing girly, but serviceable,

dusky red, ochre yellow, can’t miss it, obvious to bees,
and they call it Banksia because Banks (this is the chorus)

is bankrolling everyone – Dr Solander, the sickly artists,
five servants, their food, the materials, to the tune of £10,000.

Eventually they are churning back to England, all aboard
apart from the dead, all a success apart from that moment

in Tahiti when the Transit was simply a black drop and Banks
looked past the physical world into nothingness.

Back home he stocks Kew Gardens with the shoots
of pure science, his star rises and the Royal Society is born,

his sphere of influence expands to I see dead people
and the colony is born.

Next – this is much later – I, at 21, hogget-reared product
of the grand design, travel back (nod my head at where ugly

comes from), step off the Tube at Kew to a rush of machine-oil,
flowers, Mrs Dalloway, enter the vast botanical organization

and on a winding path smell childhood colds and come upon
Eucalypts peeling to a smooth sore pink like the skin

of an Englishman at the cricket downunder
and over there, Banksia, and across a small sea of bluegrass

a ludicrous leggy second cousin from home waving:
cabbage tree in an unaccustomed grove.

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