This, the Tropic Sea

By William W. Whitney

THE TIME had come to clean out a small store room.

Among the items to sort and dispose was a small trunk placed there in 1949 -- nearly 50 years earlier -- and untouched since. On opening it, I found that it contained all of my old naval uniforms: khakis, whites and dress blues. There were also packets of letters and photographs and a faded and stained manila envelope labeled "poems." These were written during World War II when I served in the U.S. Naval Reserve, assigned to sea duty in the South Pacific.

I served on a supply ship, an ammunition ship and a repair ship. During the South Pacific campaigns, these vessels often spent a large amount of time anchored in remote atoll lagoons and island harbors. Shore leave was extremely limited or non-existent, except in Hawaii, allowing ample time for observing the tropic sea and sky, and for reading and thinking. It is ironic that I was mooning and sighing in backwaters at a time when men were dying in the heroic struggles of World War II. It was simply that I found myself out of the action in the tropics and I responded.

I always included in my gear a small selection of books. Among them was Shakespeare's Sonnets, which I had never read. When I did, I responded wholeheartedly to their artistry and message. Fascinated by their intricate construction, I thought it would be interesting to try my hand. Like half the population, I had written verse in high school and college, but I had never ventured a sonnet. I studied the sonnet's rhyme scheme and form and found after deciding on an idea for a poem that it was like solving a kind of word puzzle. On long watches, percolating in my head or reciting to myself, I worked and reworked the lines. Writing the sonnets became a pleasant challenge and pastime. I continued the endeavor by writing several shorter poems.

When I rediscovered the poems, I did remember writing them, but I had forgotten their content. When I read them after so many years, I had the feeling I was reading the work of another person. For me, they evoked an atmosphere, a distant time and place. Would they do the same for another reader?


This afternoon
This latitude
I like it here
The attitude

Of long pale moon,
Of lethargy,
Of green lagoon,
They quiet me.

There's time to see
And time for dreams
The hour is
For what it seems

And nothing comes
Too soon.


Erase the clouds
Delete the sky
Obliterate the sun
Perplex the skipper
On his ship
In awful pressures run.
Bestir the winds
Then still as death,
With just a blade of moon
Prostrate before the Vacuous
And say the name


The seven sweeps of quiet gray
The low bright sheen of endless bay
Support my evening's woe.

These clouds and sea accept the store
Of old told cares, their gentle chore
To placate as they flow

Then, by the time there's one bright star
And bolt of black where islands are
Opiates of silence grow.


Then there are times on islands for the day,
A wish of green thrust forward on the rim
Of more than eyes can reach or charts can say
Of sea, projected here upon a timeless whim
Of coral. We rest a moment, linger in the shade,
Walk for a bit or gather little shells,
Squinting our eyes along the keen bright blade
Of suns that ride the gentle listless swells.
We dream and swim, then find it time to go
And in parting, what is strange to know:
This I find, and easily depart,
These islands long lay sleeping in the heart.

-- from This, the Tropic Sea
Poems of the South Pacific
by William W. Whitney, published in 1999

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