To Make Paradise Out Of Paradise

Emily Schulten



Your twisted, breathing, overlapping roots
and white sand swatches in thistle and spray
came after coral forest, bright and bathed,
came after glacial melting, when sea moved.
You came from decay, from the skeletons
of reef, anemone, and crustacean.
Ocean drops, currents follow your boundary.
Ocean drops, the wind finds your new body.
Your life becomes the heron and ibis
scratching at your rock and climbing your skies.
In your low places, the lagoons and ponds
remain, amble through your scrub and stray frond
toward your knife-sharp shore. Everything that grew
after, your wind’s last breath of solitude.


After your wind’s last breath of solitude,
your story is ghosts. It’s told from the mounds,
ceremony sites, burials, bones, food
remains, masks, conch shells, trash left underground
by the Calusas who were left slaughtered
on your shore, whitewashed coral of their bones
becoming your landscape. They ate sea grapes,
dug canoes from hollowed-out cypress, and
waded flats with palm-web nets to catch your
conch, your turtles, your lobster. They wove clothes
from your grass and worshiped from three souls formed
in the eye, reflection, and shadow. They
lived this way until stronger tribes came and
clouds of arrows left only bodies, breeze.


Clouds of arrows left only bodies, breeze,
and from a distance Ponce de Leon passed,
navigating the tangle of prop roots
and twisted, dark canopy of mangrove,
the sharp bed beneath. The rocks that rose from
your green water reminded him of the
bodies of his suffering men; he christened you
Los Martires, like the conqueror lives lost.
Many pilfered your water then. Pirates
came for sunken ships, Bahamians for wood,
Cubans for fish—dried, salted goliaths.
They hefted their bounty back home, turning
their backs toward Norte de Havana, making
the last sound of twilight their pushing waves.


The last sound of twilight, their pushing waves,
till new men came, arguing, to lay claim.
Even then, more thought you belonged to them
than there was for you to give. In attempt
to make you theirs, they drew a map, its shape
like a fish, surrounded. They found emeralds
and mounds of shells and took them away, found
those bones, corrupted your name so they could
understand, Cayo Hueso to Key West.
You were carved into fourths, sold to men who
saw what could be sold in your deep harbor,
groped your ponds, lagoons, low and high hammocks.
They came next with the pole and flag, people
hushed beneath its far-cast, blinking shadow.


Hushed beneath its far-cast, blinking shadow,
and now divided, men built planked bridges
from one shore to another, over ponds.
They cut your trees and cacti, took away
your vines and burned your brush, cleared all traces
of your wilds. You were a city. Ship captains made
houses where woods had been. They filled salt ponds
and lagoons with sand, and from your downed trees
they built boats, and your water made them rich.
They stole from the ships run aground by your
chains of reef and shoals, ships ripped end to end,
sinking in unlit, unforgiving sea.
From the south, more came ready to claim
the wrecks, splayed wide, glistening in your flats.


The wrecks, splayed wide and glistening in your flats,
supplied settlers with treasures from ships’ holds:
bronze, cut-glass chandeliers, mirrored armoires,
claw-foot Empire sofas. The town made law
and business of wrecks. The Navy made port
to take taxes. Hook boats pushed through shallows,
stabbing sponges to bring from the mangroves
to harbor by sunset. Near there were heaped
hordes of sea turtles, dead or dying. By
day’s end, what had been underwater was
piled onto the docks, high enough to meet
the horizon at sunset, ready to
be checked and counted, shipped and sold. The town’s
men gazed toward sinking sun; still more gazed in.


Men gazed toward sinking sun. Still more gazed in
from the south, seeking separation from
Spain. Émigrés saw the tip of the pier,
their refugee shapes growing taller until
their faces became familiar and their
shoulders close enough for embrace, far from
Guerra Grande. Exiles spilled into your
streets: parades, processions. Ruffled rumba
shirts and dresses, drumbeat, bolero, sounds
so loud they cracked open the very island,
leading the parade into its belly of coral,
into a time before the land lifted its head
above water, La Banda Libertad’s
songs vibrating those first-discovered bones.


Songs vibrating those first-discovered bones
could be heard in the corner groceries,
inside the bakeries, heading toward the wood-
limbed buildings with windows wide, peeking in
at men seated in rows and rolling, their
price paid per cigar. Your channels opened
to embrace more, Bahamians came to
settle, now, drawn by your waters’ blooming
sponges, swollen pink and orange, after
their own pineapple ground had worn too thin
to provide. They hammered planks into boats
and sewed sails, found new freedoms. Their roots here
are strong, but banyan, ground too hard to dig, so
histories wrap and choke toward their own leaves.


Histories wrap and choke toward their own leaves
in cigar plants now bare of all but hush,
and sun burns water in ports where once great
ships made shadows. One hundred years rising
only to fall, the sound of the train, only then
becoming familiar, now echo. Men
stopped carrying away trash. It heaped in
the streets by cottages whose shingles hung
askew and steps were cracked, crumbled concrete.
Music stopped. Air hushed. Defeated, your
people pled that the state take over town,
its people moved and city left for wind.
Instead, a deal—a town saved by a plan
to make paradise out of paradise.


To make paradise out of paradise,
first, they brought in artists, set up easels
to turn panoramas to brochures.
They taught locals to make jewelry to sell
from shells, your coral and palm stage a perfect
backdrop to present the show—look at the
boys carrying fish from harbor, the man
blowing songs from a conch, hear the laúd
in the night clubs the New Deal built. See how
they make this island two: little houses
or huge hotels, men who throw coins into
the sea to watch local boys run after.
This is how a place becomes a postcard,
the end of the road, end of a rainbow.


The end of the road, end of a rainbow,
where now pavement’s laid, anyone can get
here. Many are the lost who decide to
go until there’s no more road, so they stare
outward, wanting more than anything for
there to be some new magic emerging
from the water. Their presence is a search,
and the water, murkier after dark,
hallucinates in reflection, making
for tides of streetwalkers, sailors, dancers
and shrimpers, loners nightlong, distorting
this place to what they’d dreamed it’d be. It’s
a dream, waking in sweats, discovering
their last chance to seek what doesn’t exist.


Their last chance to seek what doesn’t exist
makes of palm canopies tents for looting
the night. Writers and painters create
the perfect scene, perfect for prowling their lives.
Soon, this was everybody’s paradise:
if you can dream it, it will be. Look, step
past the man sooted in salt, see the sea?
Sip and watch the sunset there. It’s all yours.
It’s for sale. The exiles, artists, you
can count on their ghosts; make-believe
is buried beneath those condo-gods rising
to face the sun. Tours will tell stories,
a folklore of half-truths, cleaned-up tale of
white picket fences, sand and conch façade.


White picket fences, sand and conch façade,
tropical gardens where local landscapers
spend more time than the name on the deed. Peek
past tall gates, between planks, to see slivers and
slants of mansions not fathomable to the
rows of shotgun conch cottages still standing,
to the people both born and exiled here,
no longer able to find the city they were born to.
The heavy reef sinks slowly where once there was
water, now concrete, over which the landscapers,
bartenders, and tour guides ride a bus
home, an island or two away from the
buzzed and swaying tourists, as the shrinking
last lights of Duval grow dim at first sun.


Last lights of Duval grow dim at first sun,
the island’s only quiet space of day.
The curtain down, street sweepers clear away
the debris of yesterday. And you turn
like this too, a continuing toil
to carry the water back over all
of this again. Your wind has been enough
to strip people bare, your surge enough
to swallow houses whole. Your tide rises
in splashes of storm on cement seawalls
to claim what will be yours again—slowly,
your wet fingertips crawling further up
the spine of your coral island to meet
your twisted, breathing, overlapping roots.


The twisted, breathing, overlapping roots,
and your wind’s last breath of solitude, brought
clouds of arrows, leaving only bodies, breeze,
the last sound of twilight, the pushing waves.
Hushed beneath a far-cast, blinking shadow.
The wrecks, splayed wide, glistened in your flats, and
men gazed out at sinking suns, while still more gazed in.
Songs vibrated those first-discovered bones, whose
histories wrap and choke toward their own leaves
to make paradise out of paradise
at the end of the road, end of a rainbow,
the last chance to seek what doesn’t exist: those
white picket fences and sand and conch façades
as the lights of Duval are growing dim at first sun.


Emily Schulten is the author of Rest in Black Haw. Her work appears in Prairie SchoonerColorado ReviewThe Missouri Review, and Tin House, among others. She is a professor of English and creative writing at The College of the Florida Keys.