Home » Issues & Poems » Issue Four » from GRACELINE


Jane Duran

This poem forms part of my long sequence Graceline. In 1955 I traveled with my mother and sisters from New York to Valparaiso, Chile, on a Grace Line ship. My father had been posted to CEPAL, the UN office in Santiago, and was awaiting our arrival. Our boat, the Santa Barbara, was a cargo ship, which also carried some passengers. It stopped in many ports, and traveled through the Panama Canal, then down the Pacific coast of South America.

Because the journey is so central to the book, many of the poems don’t adhere to the left hand margin, but break loose from their moorings. This is very freeing. In the case of this mini-sequence, Panama Canal, the form is fairly regular and contained, but the second line of every verse is indented. I think this amplifies, or emphasizes the meaning of each line: the spacing encourages you to look at each line and image separately and slowly. It also, to me, has a destabilising effect.

I wanted to learn more about the Canal, to try to recreate the voyage, but in the end I was drawn to the story of how the Canal was built. Matthew Parker’s brilliantly researched book Panama Fever, with its eyewitness accounts, was a harrowing and powerful way into this territory. As I imagined the lives of the workers on the Canal, I tried to bring the experience into poetry, through narrative and suggestion. The sections on the building of the Canal are faintly drawn sketches suggesting the cruel conditions faced by the workers who built the Canal, and also the resistance of the jungle itself to this vast enterprise.


Panama Canal

     En mi soledad

  he visto cosas muy claras,

  que no son verdad.*


 Antonio Machado (Proverbios y Cantares)




Unerringly, our ship recovers speed.

There is a splinter in my foot

my mother takes out with a needle.


Seeing each port for the first time

I cannot immediately interpret it.

I hold the picture upside down, I squint,


and there is also what happens to land

faraway, as the Atlantic weather changes,

and to language in all its emotive climates.


The ship dreams a little

as it waits in the Gatún Lock.

I feel the tumult of  its patience under my feet.




Now liners pass us on the Canal,

swanky cruisers showing off,

cargo ships with red or black funnels,


nothing helpless or impeded.

On deck my sister holds her hands out –

the butterflies travel against us


or round us, blue and haphazard,

a mild resistance.

The locks open for us, along the banks


gauzy smalltown-America streets pursue us,

and a jungle passes through our ship.



    *In my solitude/I have seen things very clearly/that are not true.




The men digging on the slopes,

exhausted or sick, stop to look up.

Soft colours in the sepia photograph


are washed in by computer,

artifice – the pale blues

and rust of  their shirts, their trousers;


only the sober eyes are dark

(for who was smiling?) like level tides

with nowhere to go.




Colón, bar-town at the hard

edge of  water, Bottle Alley,


men leaning on the bar doors

out of  the sun,


in the alcohol-soaked mud street:

a day that came and went


but lingered a little

before it left finally, had in it


a letter, a letter from

somewhere else


with no terror, no yellow fever,

no sliding mud, broken boots


and in her handwriting –

dry, dry – an open door


to a smallholding.




I think of  a mud street filling up

with empty bottles.

A man walks over them,


the perilous bridge they make.

I think of  the rum

he pours down his throat,


hat over his eyes

and how it feels good to be

where he is for a few minutes,


to be in that heat after a downpour

where the malaria

and yellow fever mosquitoes


can drink from him

away from the workers’ camp,

70 men to his hut, the night-time


wailing over the dead;

and then he throws the empty bottle

away, still stinking of  rum,


the reeling truth

rolled out into those streets.




When I look at that long photographic

exposure of  the Gaillard Cut


in the slow, myriad 1913 that was,

I see a ship, a hull 


scooped out of  the earth – imagined in the digging.

Railway tracks are laid meticulously


between Gold and Contractors Hills,

locomotives, dirt trains, rock drills


strewn along the base of  the canal,

glimmers of  mud here and there,


drenched clothes, but timid, far-off

points of  light glint like guardian ports;


and then at last the men put down their shovels

and look up


and see mineral oils, iron, sugar,

lumber, canned foods,


coffee, silver, wheat and coal

passing serenely overhead.




Wherever they cut away the land

it kept coming back, sucked in.


What did they hope to hold onto here?

Dynamite, steam shovels,


the dead, the dying?

Or the marrying, babies,


a bride’s dress flaring

in Culebra, her steady gaze.


And the sliding energy

of  the clay when rainwater


penetrated so the clay

all but flew off  the rock


burying men, shovel and pickaxe.

This is how it was:


the hill wanted to run back

into the canal-pit and replace


what was taken away,

and the human wanted to join up


the two oceans with weeping

and wailing.

Join our mailing list

Your email: