Redbeck Press, 2002 - £3.95
This long poem is an appropriate vehicle for an account of Drake’s protracted navigation of the globe. There’s a treasure chest of detail but this is no heroic tale. Earnshaw’s version is grim and packed with unpleasant images. In section 5 of the poem “great herds of seals huddled/ and writhed like maggots on decaying meat”, the men “whirling/great wooden clubs, despatched two hundred/in a single hour.” Spaniards too are unfortunate if they get in the way. Drake’s men are pirates—they seize ships “as one might pick up driftwood/ from the beach”. And if the natives of lands they visit are unfriendly, resistance is overcome with superior force. One shot and a Patagonian’s abdomen explodes “bud to scarlet flower”.
Drake and his shipmates, “pustuled with lice in clusters/ big as peas, unwashed and sick”, are assailed both by waves “as sharp as teeth/ of monster sharks biting the air” and by the elements. In section 9, “vicious winds” trap the boats “and bring them death”. In turn, the voyagers attack wildlife. There’s no indication of any sense of wonder or awe as they encounter penguins, “cutting a swathe of crushed and bleeding/ skulls”. And there’s only a hint of remorse in section 14, when, in the Moluccas, stuck on a sandbank and facing “the awful prospect of a lingering death”, they are visited by visions:
rocks, winds, the gales, ice, penguins, ostriches,
the seals they’d killed, sprung now in dislocation,
were the spirits of the air and sea…
By section 15 of this lengthy poem, it’s home via the Indian Ocean and the Cape of Good Hope. Earnshaw seems
as keen as Drake and his men to finish the journey and she covers eight months in as many lines, concluding with a curiously modern term for Drake: “multi-millionaire”.