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Letter from a New World: 1492

by Debora Greger


              Because I knew
they were a people to be converted
              to our faith by love
rather than by force, I gave them
              red caps, glass beads,
and other things of little value.
              At this, they became
so entirely our friends, they swam
              to our boats and brought
parrots, cotton thread, and spears,
              which they traded
for more beads, then hawks’ bells;
              these they hung
about their necks. They gave
              what they had,
but seemed deficient in everything.
              They go naked
as their mothers bore them,
              and the women, also,
though I saw only one young girl.
              Of all the handsome bodies
I did see, not one was thirty years of age.
              Their hair is coarse,
almost like a horse’s tail, their skin
              the color of the people
in the Canaries, neither black nor white.
              Some are painted black,
some white or red, or any color they find.
              Some paint their faces
or their whole bodies, some only the eyes.
              They do not bear arms
or know them, for the sword I showed them
              they took by the blade,
cutting themselves in ignorance.
              Their spears are reeds,
some with a fish tooth at the end.
              They have no iron.
I saw some who bore wounds and,
              when I made signs
to inquire about this, they indicated
              people had come
from other islands but they escaped.

              How easily
they should be made Christian,
              for they appear
to have no creed. They would make
              good servants; quite quickly
they repeat whatever is said to them.
              The Lord willing,
I will bring back six to Your Highnesses,
              that they may learn to talk.
I saw no beast of any kind on this island,
              except parrots.


Debora Greger’s new book of poems, Western Art, was published by Penguin in October.

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