Home > Water > What We Ate After Passing the Cape of Eleven Thousand Virgins

What We Ate After Passing the Cape of Eleven Thousand Virgins

May 21, 2008

28 Noviembre 1520, Antonio Pigafetta

My Lord, it was the Feast of Saint Ursula.
Thus was Fernando moved to name the cape
we rounded after passing the straits

of Tierra del Fuego. There were of course no such creatures
to be seen. Only the sea, always the sea,
its tangles of kelp matted like hair

wanting the ministrations of a tortoise-shell comb…
It is many, many months since our last memory
of women: candled fingertips touched to holy

water in the basin, pale ankles glimpsed as they ascended
dark stairways leading to rooms suffused with the mingled
scent of rancid sausages and violets…

The hardships we have endured! Three months
and twenty days since we laid bare the last of our provisions.
All that remains we eat: old biscuits ground to powder,

sifted with grubs and sawdust. We soaked
strips of ox-hide from the main-yard in sea water, then
roasted them on coals. This is how

we entered the Cape of Desire—retching and heaving;
and those calm waters which Fernando christened
Pacific. The horizon a line

clean as a hem of bleached muslin, rippling in the wind.

by Luisa A. Igloria

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  1. May 21, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    I love this, drawing on all the senses. I can hear the rigging calming down at the end, there. Love the rancid sausages and violets, too.

  2. Ivy
    May 21, 2008 at 12:23 pm


  3. May 21, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    Beautiful, Luisa.

    I loved this: It is many many months since our last memory of women…

    And that last line is just fabulous.

  4. Til
    May 21, 2008 at 4:30 pm

    Amazing poem — especially the ending. Wow! I love the imagery and the way sensuality plays against the starkness of the situation.

  5. May 21, 2008 at 5:05 pm


    I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this poem. This is the most sensuous history lesson I’ve ever been given!

  6. Rebecca Lauren
    May 21, 2008 at 5:43 pm

    “Only the sea, always the sea…”
    I love the way you capture the contradicting personalities of the sea in this poem, how it becomes a character who is both part of the poem’s action and yet an onlooker. (It makes me think of our own relationship, as writers, to our poems, how we are at once part of them, and yet bystanders as well.)

  7. Ina
    May 22, 2008 at 12:53 am

    Tight. ^_^
    I, too, appreciate the image of rancid sausages.

  8. Jessamyn Smyth
    May 22, 2008 at 1:37 am

    Beautiful! I love this.

  9. May 22, 2008 at 6:13 am

    Spectacular……a truly beautiful piece.

  10. Leah
    May 22, 2008 at 9:53 am

    What pretty imagery… Love the ending.

  11. May 22, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    the tangled kelp line and the last line about the horizon both made lovely pictures in my head…well done!

  12. Christina Pacosz
    May 22, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    Luisa’s gorgeously rich poem about how the Pacific was “discovered” has prompted me to post this poem of my own about another historic voyage, though one not quite so famous. Not sure if replying to a poem about water with another poem about water is kosher, but here goes:

    A Woman About to Give Birth Aboard Ship Speaks to Her Condition*

    June 12, 1750 Somewhere upon the Atlantic

    In the extremes of my travail, I cried out,
    and who would not, for doesn’t the Good Book
    command strict counsel, With pain
    you will give birth, but woe unto me,
    with such wrenchings and twistings
    as I never did see, I could not.

    The babe chose to tarry while a storm roared
    without. I feared the child had been begotten
    in an evil hour, so oppressed was I
    within the stifling hold, staring at my belly heaving
    as the ship tossed and heaved upon the sea
    and I gnashed my teeth and flailed about in misery.

    My shipmates, weary of my incessant sobs and wails,
    and thinking to placate what Powers raged,
    cast me out upon the bosom of the sea.
    Yes, good folk, it was my sorry lot
    not to give birth as I had so fervently
    beseeched Heaven, but to be born again

    myself in those cruel waters. Strong men
    thrust aside the women who attended me
    and roughly grabbed me up, bloody clothes and all,
    pitching me like a penny through the open porthole.
    I felt kin to a bird or some strange flying fish
    for those sweet, brief moments I hovered

    above the waves, gulping salt air
    like a starving wretch. That tangy stuff
    was my last sup, and then I was in the sea and of it,
    just as my babe was encompassed in me, floating
    in its own briny deep. So came my time and gravid
    was I in those cold and indifferent waters, closing

    about my head. Now my screams went unheeded,
    naught to offend but the little fishies,
    who waited upon me to be dead. I commended
    my soul to the great God above, for Heaven
    must be my lot, not Hell, how else to explain
    such an ignominious Fate. I could not.

    *Based upon an actual diary account of the incident, A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn. Appeared in Exquisite Corpse, A Journal of Books and Ideas, No. 39, 1992, edited by Andrei Codrescu, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, published by Illinois State University Publications Center, ISSN 0740.7815

  13. May 22, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    Echo all the previous responses. I, too, love this poem that re-awakens my love of the sea, especially in the days of wood and wind. The sea voyages in those days were nothing but unimaginably hard toil and numbing, endless routine boredom, bad food, bad tempers, and harsh conditions…a life many returned to again and again at the end of yet another interminable sea voyage. Luisa, you brought it all to life, and taught a history lesson. This poem is stunning, and sumptuous. Thank you for sharing it.

  14. May 22, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    Loved this. Thanks.

  15. May 23, 2008 at 6:50 am

    Marvellous, Luisa. I can imagine this poem set to music.

  16. May 23, 2008 at 11:21 am

    Thanks everyone for the wonderful comments! – and, Christina, for the other water poem.

    and Natalie – I’ve just been tooling around on the various sites connected to your blog and I lovelovelove your work! What I’ve seen and read so far, and Augustine and Inertia, has (have :) just blew me away! I tried to send this to your blueyonder dot co dot uk address but I don’t seem to have the correct one.

  17. May 23, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    The form is so well-matched to the swells of sea and the long straight horizon line as closure.

  18. May 23, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    So beautiful, Luisa. A voyage on a sunlit afternoon, looking at the maple trees.

  19. May 23, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    Beautiful work!

    As a non-poet, I always think I won’t “get” poetry, but I really enjoyed this narrative. Thanks for sharing it!


  20. Mye
    May 27, 2008 at 1:33 pm

    Made me miss a part of my life I left behind…….
    Thanks for bringing back memories.
    Love it!

  21. Mac McKinney
    May 27, 2008 at 10:37 pm

    Very rich poem in all dimensions, imagery, story, sonorousness, pulling you into the crew’s reality.

  22. May 29, 2008 at 8:49 am

    Luisa, thanks very much. I’ve only just seen your reply as my internet connection has been down for the past few days. My (disguised) email is:
    augustine DOT nda NOW PUT IN THE “AT” SIGN blueyonder DOT co DOT uk

  23. Joyce
    July 11, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    Having been a sailor at sea I so identify with this. The Eleven Thousand Virgins is such a symbol of the romanticized legends of sailors and then to juxtapose it with the harsh realities of everyday life on board ship is sheer genuis. Love this!

  24. Lito Tesoro
    July 20, 2009 at 12:06 am

    You took me where I cannot go.

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