32° 19’ 59” N /64° 45’ 0” W

Pull back the mantle of the ocean
and strange the ocean.
Bring down the ether from the sky
and fable the sky.
Assemble dot by dot the stars
and cipher the stars
and strange the ocean
and fable the sky.
Pull back the mantle of the ocean,
bring down the ether from the sky.

This twenty-first-century poem by award-winning Bermudian poet Paul Maddern opens his 2010 collection The Beachcomber’s Report (Templar Poetry) and is included in This Poem-Worthy Place, edited by Kendel Hippolyte and published by Bermuda’s Department of Culture in 2011.

With its unusual use of nouns as imperatives, repetitions and incantatory style, the lines, as he himself says, are reminiscent of some spell Shakespeare’s Prospero might have uttered on his enchanted island. Indeed, the poem does cast a spell since it captures the magic of Bermuda’s almost mythical beginnings while drawing on a literary legacy going back centuries.

Even the title is magical. The ocean is not named, but what Bermudian does not know these coordinates identifying our country?
And so “32° 19’ 59” N /64° 45’ 0” W” acts as a perfect conduit into the works of other contemporary poets who are mindful of their relationship with Bermuda and the sea. Before we explore this further, let us “Pull back the mantle of the ocean, bring down the ether from the sky” and briefly look at how past poets have fashioned Bermuda into their works since these uninhabited islands, mere rocks in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, were somewhat miraculously discovered by Juan Bermúdez in (arguably) 1505.

Why did Bermuda become a focus of interest to writers so far away and why did they so often focus on the sea? Isolated and miniscule though it was, as Rosemary Jones points out in Bermuda Five Centuries, Bermuda early became an important navigational landmark for mariners sailing between the Indies and Europe.
Its treacherous reefs and seas subject to hurricane force winds gave it a dangerous reputation so that Bermuda was mentioned in several sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sailing narratives about shipwrecks and survival there. It’s therefore not so astonishing that such a tiny place appears in poetical works written by British poets living three thousand miles away, who never had any intention of ever visiting the place, let alone living there.

From the start, the dangers of sailing to the archipelago appealed to their imaginations. But so did the discovery by different shipwrecked sailors that Bermuda was far more hazardous to reach than to inhabit. It began to have a paradisical reputation, thanks to its lush vegetation and lack of dangerous predators.

Of course, Shakespeare’s reference to “the still vex’d Bermoothes” in The Tempest is the most famous as well as his account of the initial shipwreck in Act I inspired either by Henry May’s 1593 account of his ship striking the reef off Bermuda or by Silvester Jourdain’s and William Strachey’s accounts of the Sea Venture’s shipwreck in 1609. Given Shakespeare’s magpie-like use of sources, it could have been both.  After Shakespeare, other British poets such as Fulke Greville and Edmund Waller would sometimes refer to Bermuda as a symbol of danger on the one hand, paradise on the other.
But better known was metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell who, in his witty “Bermudas,” followed Milton’s line of thought in Paradise Regained, which argued humankind after expulsion from Eden was given a possible second chance through faith and adherence to the Christian Church.

Marvell’s poem mostly consists of a hymn sung by the crew of a small boat rowing to Bermuda through the reefs:

“What should we do but sing his praise
That led us through the wat’ry maze
Unto an isle so long unknown,
And yet far kinder than our own?”

The rowers never actually arrive so that Bermuda becomes the object of a difficult and perpetual quest. The surrounding dangerous rocks become the Church and vehicle for exultation: “And in these rocks for us did frame/A temple, where to sound his name.”  

After Marvell and Waller, not much in the way of Bermuda-related poetry happened in the eighteenth century, except for Nathaniel Tucker who, born and brought up on the island, left to study medicine in Edinburgh and wrote in 1774 a nostalgic poem, “The Bermudian,” extolling the island of his childhood. It was much admired in literary circles, perhaps for its adherence to rhyming couplets so fashionable at the time.
Thirty years later, Irish Tom Moore arrived in Bermuda as Registrar of the Court of Vice-Admiralty and subsequently wrote a few Bermuda poems, including ones addressed to local Nea Tucker and a calabash tree. As a result, for many decades he was, unaccountably, almost viewed as our poet laureate. Yet he stayed here for just four months and his Bermuda poems are unexceptional.

Roll forward to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and we are looking at Bermuda-related poems written by North American visitors influenced by propaganda promoting Bermuda’s growing tourism industry. The Bermuda Troubadours anthology, compiled by American William Griffiths, includes such poems, praising Bermuda unreservedly but lacking any authentic voice.

The following lines taken from “Bermuda” by Herald Tribune columnist Franklin Pierce Adams are a humorous example:

Bermuda! Fairy British isle
Whose lexicon is void of “hurry.”
Whose murmuring says “Rest-a-while.”
Whose motto comes to “I should worry!”

During the 1890s and into the 1920s, we did have the Bermudian poet Bessie Gray, also a prolific artist, whose poetry anthologies Bermuda in June and A Bermuda Garden of Song were published in 1893 and 1927 respectively.

One of her poems, “Spanish Rock,” follows Marvell’s idea of nature sounding the music of worship:

Still tis a place for worship: ceiled with blue,
Columned with cedar, solemn diapason: solemn too,
With the wild wind’s unceasing litanies
O’er God’s vast acre of encircling seas.

Not all of her pieces are about Bermuda, however.
Many are set in Europe where she travelled for two years, while others are about flowers such as snowdrops, daffodils, and sweet peas loved by many English poets. And most of her poems have a pious, flowery flavour, reminiscent of nineteenth-century English literature to which her Victorian upbringing would surely have exposed her. It wasn’t until much later in the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries poets bred in Bermuda began to write about their own island experiences, their own views of its colonial history and to consciously find a Bermudian voice.

Apposite to this is a poem written by Bermudian Jane Downing, currently registrar of the National Museum of Bermuda.

In “Mother Tongue,” also published in This Poem-Worthy Place, she exhorts Bermuda writers to:

Forget the language that you learned in school
Of England's green hills, violets, cold grey sea.
Forget the nightingales, the Grecian urns,
the cataract, the darling buds of May.

“The time has come to name your world, your life,” she writes, “The time has come to learn your mother tongue.”
Language should come out of actual experience in Bermuda rather than unlived English poetic convention. For her, and for Bermudians in general, living on the island means a deep connection with the sea and so her “mother tongue” contains “Words that are as sharp as sea eggs under foot … Words that are soft as sea rods, and as rough / as wave-washed rocks where no man’s foot has trod.”
“Speak truth,” she says in the third verse, describing her lover’s beard as “coarse” as “winter seaweed, stiff with salt and wind,” and like “Driftwood that’s been drying in the sun.”

Bermudian writer and performer Andra Simons was also born and brought up in Bermuda though is now living in London.  In his book Turtlemen (Copy Press 2021) he draws on Bermuda’s marine heritage, the sea as a means of living not just a picturesque backdrop.

At the beginning of “Interlude” he writes:

GOSSIP-KEEPERS: Turtlemen … Learned to grow white lilies and how to build swift lean boats. They learned
The movement of the tides and the mood of shoals.
Turtlemen learned to bait, catch and boil.

Then he adds the somewhat sinister, “They learned to save the eyes for last.”
As he explains in an interview conducted by Kitt Price for the journal Wasafiri the ocean is “along the roadside while on a bus to school, and you are never more than five minutes from being able to spot it.”
He is ambivalent about it, making a distinction between ocean and sea. “…the ocean is where fear abides and is anchored. It is uncontrollable, it steals life.”
On the other hand, the sea is something more nurturing altogether.
It was where he learnt to swim.
It has healing powers.
“The sea is what called me at dawn and dusk to bathe.”

Downing also has lived in, on and near the water, the sea once her childhood playground. But it is a primaeval fear of the deep ocean that informs her menacing “Edge of The Deep” (included in This Poem-Worthy Place), addressing a shark:

Out of the murky blue you shake the cage,
dog of the sea, relic of a nightmare past,
survivor of long wars, the origin
of things that bump in darkness, forms that slide
across the light, that swing around to catch
a fin, a limb, a torso or perhaps
to stalk the fraying edges of the mind.

Whether called sea or ocean, the water becomes destructive in a hurricane, as brought to life in “Emily Hurricane,” written by Bermudian artist, writer, performer and theatre director Alan Smith and included in Poems from a Green and Blue Planet (Hachette 2019). He, like many Bermudians, experienced Hurricane Emily in September 1987.
In this folk blues, song-like children’s poem, he creates a child narrator, who meets the hurricane personified as, in Smith’s words, “a siren-like, mad villainess.”

She had silver hair
But it was kind of wild,
Electricity for eyes
And a crackling laugh,
Ranting and raving
Like she was crazy.

In her seductive refrain, which she speaks, then sings and whistles, she tempts the child into joining her frenzied chaos in which the elements of air, earth and sea are madly confused. She is gleefully mischievous, mindlessly destructive.

“Wouldn’t you like to swim in the sky,
Sail with the trees as they go whizzing by,
dance with the rooftops as they go bubbling?
Wouldn’t you like to swim in the sky?”

With child-like directness he asks, ‘“Why are you howling/Outside my windows?”’ receiving the enigmatic answer, ‘“Rounding up beaches to herd away/And deliver to a better place.’” Her response convinces him to see the beaches ‘“…elated to run away with her/and find a safer home at the bottom of the sea”’ so that by the end he is tempted by her invitation.

We can hear him shouting in the wind:

“Maybe I’d like to join the beaches
At the bottom of the sea.”

Fortunately for him, she capriciously disappears and the last song she sings tells us the lethal fate he escapes:

“If you ever make it to the bottom of the sea
You can join us as we dance, the beaches and me.”

If the sea can be destructive, it is also from an evolutionary point of view a source of life, as Bermudian Kim Dismont Robinson, currently director of Bermuda’s Department of Culture, reminds us in “the known world,” also published in This Poem-Worthy Place.
 She watches her very young first born, Jasmine, playing in the sea like a “bright-eyed fish” with her “tiny starfish hands/ whose sucking fingertips/ move like anemones/ catching a current or a breeze” and sees them as:

reminders of a life
recently removed
from the sea inside

Robinson is, of course, remembering when her daughter was in utero. From this perspective, she is writing about the universality of the experience of a pregnant woman. As she says, “Being pregnant for the first time is such an incredibly novel experience even though it’s as old as time.”
Every baby is born from water, but it was also significant for Robinson that Jasmine would be “an island child.”
“I was thinking of the ocean world she was going to be born into, of all the things in the environment I wanted to share with her.”

But she also has a question for her developing child:

when your language shifts
and moves from gill to tongue
from languid submarine gurgles
to the dragging drip of island english
will you remember what you saw
through whisper-thin eyelids
closed and open to
everything surrounding you?

While these lines (the poet’s use of lowercase suggesting humans in their earliest stage of being) convey the transformation from swimming embryo to fully formed human, they also reference our evolutionary origins.
Living on such a small island, the ocean rarely out of sight, means we can be constantly reminded the human race evolved from aquatic beginnings.
We have this in common with Bermuda: did it not also begin its geological life under water?

Pull back the mantle of the ocean,
bring down the ether from the sky.