... mindful of the unhonored dead
— Thomas Gray
Here they stood, whom the Kecoughtan first believed
gods from another world, one pair of longjohns
each, bad-yellow, knotted with lice,
the godless, bandy-legged runts
with ear bit off, or eye gouged,
who killed and prayed
over whatever flew, squatted, or swam.
In huts hacked from mulberry, pine, and swamp cyprus,
they huddled ripe as hounds.
At cockcrow scratched, shuffled marsh paths,
took skiffs and ferried to dead-rise scows,
twenty-footers dutifully designed and of right draft
for oysters, crabs, and croakers.
They were seaworthy.
According to diaries hand-scrawled, and terse court records,
our ancestors: barbarous, habitual, Virginians.
Some would not sail, came ashore, walked on the land,
kept faces clenched, lay seed and family,
moved often, and are gone. Of them
this harbor says nothing.
Of the sea’ s workmen, not much,
no brass plate of honor, no monument in the square,
no square, merely the wreckage of a place.
But they stood —
proud, black and white, surly in mist
at the hovel of the boatwright, arm pointed:
Build me one like that yonder!
Meaning the gray hull I see across a cove,
bottom up, canting, nameless now as the hard,
long arm, daddy’ s or granddaddy’ s, that points, but
known to the one said to crush clams in his palms, thus
got paid, always, who built the derelicts, and who,
barring feud, took stick in hand here, made
that grave gouged line of a keel,
then his broad brow
lifted seaward, in silence, sometimes
summoning a shape in memory, and it hove up, and was
changed some, they whined, but God knows
all they wanted, all he made for them was
to be a little unlike the drab hulls
of the dead ones, but not too much.
Like that one yonder!
This was the image he gave them to dream of change,
tomorrow only a guess, the sea’ s story their
life-stink and bow-slam and stillness, and they
saw how the fair ones grew, quick riddle-riders
our fathers feared, schools that gave us
a message sewn on chest, Bible, slate,
and this worm-holed future entered
blindly as I now have entered his place, feeling
for log-char, back-flung gates of light,
and the builder.
Like that one...
the lies begin, each inventing why
he should rise up, he should hack out
the joy they dream, his pitch boiled, black
as mud seaming their legs.
Suddenly, I see
and take up a cap left as worthless on a stump, its
stained round fitting my head like water.
Merely to wait where the builder heaved shards and chips
and abortive clots to the tide’ s tongue-lap
is to feel the unconceived shape pulse
down his arm, into fingers
that took up that stick to let loose
the ingathered wilderness
of dreams: loon, crow, osprey, gull, the man
who cannot believe what he sees, but still sees it.
An immense shadow
making over water.
Stick in hand, eyes squint. And
there it is,
the wind cradling
of an Eagle, wing-sails, unfurled, bow-chopping
white water head on, a creature now there, now gone.
A man, I have to hold my face up, study how
air heats, builds a rising push until the high
circle of sight skids out everywhere.
I understand, almost, the problem: is he not harnessed,
himself, this light flyer, this father
designed to sail like a small god, to screech
down upon pine-huddled, hungry chicks he must
send off with his lethal, air-buoyed shape?
Nothing in him asks what is
over the wave-edge
where our brothers float and sink,
lovely shadows, by the millions.
Putting my back to the sea-worn trunk
they have left me, I pull the stick through
the dirt, and remember the long line,
man-weight in it, and dark-buoyed.
with freckling light, with the answering of birds
crying out the only speech we all have
above our unfinished country
that looms still in the soul,
that would bear us hence,
out of the water that beats in,
out of the water that bore us all here.