Elegy in an Abandoned Boatyard

By Dave Smith b. 1942 Dave Smith

... 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.

                                                Dreaming change,

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.

                                           It grows
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.

Dave Smith, “Elegy in an Abandoned Boatyard” from The Wick of Memory: New and Selected Poems, 1974-2000. Copyright © 2000 by Dave Smith. Reprinted with the permission of Louisiana State University Press.

Source: The Wick of Memory: New and Selected Poems, 1974-2000 (Louisiana State University Press, 2000)

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Poet Dave Smith b. 1942

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

Subjects History & Politics, Death, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Living, Nature, Social Commentaries

 Dave  Smith

Biography

Poet, novelist, critic, and editor Dave Smith was born in Portsmouth, Virginia. The first member of his family to graduate from college, Smith received a BA from the University of Virginia, an MA from Southern Illinois University, and a PhD from Ohio University. Smith has published more than a dozen volumes of poetry, including Little Boats, Unsalvaged: Poems 1992–2004 and The Wick of Memory: New and Selected Poems, 1970–2000, . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT History & Politics, Death, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Living, Nature, Social Commentaries

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

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