The Poet's Perspective: 'Port-au-Prince, 1960' changes a child's view

January 10, 2011

Robin Becker, the 2010-11 Penn State laureate and professor of English and women's studies at the University, is sharing several of her poems via video during the 2010-11 academic year, aiming to engage people "in the deep pleasures of poetry -- language crafted and shaped from words, the 'ordinary' material we all use every day," to explore how and why poems move us.

"The Poet's Perspective" is a weekly poetry video series scheduled to appear during the fall 2010 and spring 2011 semesters on Penn State Live and in Penn State Newswires. Prior to each poem, Becker offers her thoughts about what inspired her to write the piece, then poses a question to consider. Below and in the video link of "Port-au-Prince, 1960," Becker recounts a pivotal moment in her childhood that made her aware of issues surrounding race and economic standing.

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As children, my sister and I accompanied our parents on a Caribbean cruise. In the Port-au-Prince harbor, we watched boys and young men dive for coins the tourists threw into the water. For the first time, I became sharply aware of the privilege of white skin and the economic disparities that separated tourists and Haitians. This piece documents a coming-of-age moment for the child in the poem. By the poem's close, she has changed from a cloistered innocent to a young person becoming responsible for her opinions and actions.

Question to consider: When did you become aware of race and class as markers of economic and social divisions? What feelings can you remember experiencing?

Port-Au-Prince, 1960

My sister and I stand at the ship's rail
and watch the Greek sailors
hurl buckets of water on the gangplank.
The drops glow and fall in the bright sun,
here where they manufacture light
and salt air for our happiness.
Next, they unfurl a heavy red carpet which we know
is for us, for our shoes, since our pleasure
and comfort are very dear to them.
All morning, black boys have been diving for change
from splintering rowboats.
I try to imagine how their heads feel
miles underwater where they must swim
to find the dimes. Against the azure Caribbean Sea
their bodies shine. . . . they shoot up
like geysers, like fountains of oil. holding one
fist above their heads to signify success. Again
and again they go down to the bottom
to collect the silver coins,
and I notice that they have surrounded us
in their rowboats and canoes, and now they are clapping
and yelling, urging all the white people crowded
at the rail to throw, to throw, to empty our pockets.
Blue-black, they drift in circles, one at the oars, the other
poised to dive, and in my child's mind their screams and whistles
are cries of anger. The great ship inches steadily
toward shore, toward the dense jungle, the golf courses
and tennis courts, restaurants and clubs.
The black boys retreat in their tiny boats,
as our pastel crowd pushes forward. I squeeze
my sister's hand; we have been told to stay
together, to walk directly behind our parents,
to avoid eye contact. Before I step onto the island,
I know that I am different from the people
who live here, I know that I have something another child needs.

"Port-Au-Prince, 1960" is from All-American Girl, by Robin Becker, © 1996. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the publisher.

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View Robin Becker's schedule of appearances at online. To read or watch videos of previous poems in the series, click here. To listen to an occasional podcast series where Becker and a small group of students and faculty discuss one of her poems, visit "Liberal Arts Voices."

  • To watch a video of Robin Becker reading 'Port-Au-Prince, 1960,' click on the image above.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated March 21, 2011