Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Oktoberfest and Columbus Day--Something for Everyone

Today is the 200th anniversary of Oktoberfest, a holiday which began as a city-wide celebration of the marriage of a royal couple. Raise a glass! I wish I liked beer more.

In an interesting juxtaposition of holidays, today is also the real Columbus Day, not the federal holiday. Oktoberfest and Christopher Columbus . . . surely a poem lurks there. Old world, new world, hmmmmm.

I must confess, I might have overlooked Columbus Day, except that the mail didn't come and I thought, oh yeah, Columbus Day. Today, of course, is the real anniversary: in 1492, the 10 week Atlantic journey ended when a sailor saw land.

Unfortunately, Columbus was looking for a shorter trade route, and since he didn't have a sense of how huge the planet was, he had set off on a voyage destined for failure, at least failure as he set the parameters. He had stumbled on a wealth of natural resources: tomatoes, corn, beans, not to mention lumber, vast continents of space which could absorb people fleeing from overcrowded Europe, minerals, astonishing soil . . . but Columbus never did find that trade route.

I always wondered if he felt a sense of failure, so I wrote this poem. The title refers to a poem by John Donne, "Good Friday, Riding Westward, 1613," which I was teaching at the time.

Columbus Day, 2001, Riding Westward

Christopher Columbus set sail in search of a swifter
trade route, an easier way to bring spice
back from the Far East. At what point
did he realize that he’d gone astray, that a whole
continent stood in his way?

Did he ever realize the value of his discovery?
I picture him grumbling. “These natives
are weaklings. I’ve never seen such a sickly
bunch.” I’m sure he never saw himself as the source
of the infection. Did he mourn the lack
of gold and spice? He had no idea that he’d found
an agricultural mother lode: beans, corn, and tomatoes.

How often do I sail upon these same waters?
Always yearning for the voyage I had planned,
not enjoying the trip I’m on. Always questing
for traditional treasures, never envisioning
the wealth before me, so simple is its disguise.

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