An Account of a Visit to Hawaii


Snow through the fronds, fire flowing into the sea
At a goddess' will who does not ask belief–
It is hard to reconcile extremities
Of any size, or to find their centers out,
As paradoxes demonstrate, and griefs,
And this old kingdom running sweetly out.
You would not think to say of a custom here
‘This is the place itself,' as you might elsewhere.

There are no snakes and very little lust;
Many decorums have made life decorous.
Fish stands for food and hospitality,
And the innocence of symbols generally
Is surprising, now that we think absurd
The Noble Savage. Mildmercy–one word–
Is perhaps the closest European concept
To name the culture, surely to name the climate

Which has the ocean's powers of deception
When unrippled. The women stringing flowers
To keep the shade describe a slow ellipse
From June to June, like sundials at their hours.
And people have mistaken toy ships
For the ship to take them back across the ocean
And later stayed too long. The practical
Chinese put ripples in the year with Catherine wheels.

Mildness can enervate as well as heat.
The soul must labor to reach paradise.
Many are here detained in partial grace
Or partial penalty, for want of force.
The canefields burn in fire that does no harm,
The cataracts blow upward in the Trades,
For all the world as if there were no rules.
It is no easy place to save the soul.

And there is danger to the native pride
Of a land where dreams make the economy.
Like tourists, dreams distort the things they buy
And float an easy currency, until
There is no talking to the native heart.
Nightly descending through the baroque cloud
That decorates these hills, riding on air,
Thousands arrive by dream at their desire.

One of the last kings sold the Sandlewood
To buy a fleet. For every ship, they filled
An excavation dug to match the hull.
You can see these to this day–volcanic soil
Falls chunk by chunk into the phantom holds.
It rains at night. The trees the old king sold
Do not grow back. The islands have their perils
Which if you do not feel, no one can tell you.

This is another meaning for aloha,
A greeting as ambiguous as the place:
Not a promiscuous welcome to all strangers,
But what is more hospitable than that,
Warning of taboos and a hundred dangers–
Whether to you, you must decide alone.
And if it is not safe to come here yet,
One of the things aloha means is: wait.

A place to live when you are reconciled
To beauty and unafraid of time.
(They languish, abstract, when no more opposed.)
A place to earn in more chastising climates
Which teach us that our destinies are mild
Rather than fierce as we had once supposed,
And how to recognize the peril of calm,
Menaced only by surf and flowers and palms.


William Meredith, Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems, Northwestern University Press, 1997.