For the last time, look, Roberto, on this island,
the lights of San Juan glowing in the dark
like candles in the houses of the poor,
who are casting their nets into the night
where dreams wriggle like fish.
Below you, the Atlantic looms like death.
The pilot, Jerry Hill, from Ypsilanti,
banks the DC7 to the right
for the flight to Nicaragua,
the fuselage of the charted plane overloaded
with supplies for the victims of the quake.
New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1972,
millions of miles behind you,
a thousand flights between the ballparks
in the States, three thousand hits
rattling the opposition, ricocheting off
scoreboards all over the National League—
see the engine burst in flame—
Ave Maria, my time has come!
Tell us, Roberto, that death is not
so terrible after all, that the ocean
in which you float, the salt in your wounds,
is no worse than a ninety-eight-mile
Steve Carleton fastball in the ribs
or crashing into the ivy-covered
red-brick wall at Forbes Field.
Tell us, Roberto, because we need to know
what death is and what it is not.
We look for meaning in your sudden
departure from the race.
In spite of the slurs and taunts,
many nameless acts of kindness.
The poor mourn you like a saint,
two continents pay their respects.
Everyone knows your name.
Behind the bravura at the plate,
putting the Yankee pitchers in their place—
showing the Norteamericanos
how their game is played—
We wait for some word from you,
a gesture from the sea perhaps,
but each day, as life does death,
one ocean meets another with indifference.
Though we resolve to live meaningfully,
the great questions go unanswered.
This much we understand, however—
it’s Clemente, not Casey at the bat,
It’s Roberto, Prince of the Island,
returning from that last flight to Managua,
rounding third, heading home,
surviving in the laughter of the poor.
Robert Forrey, 1973