Six Sailors

to Pete Foss,
God give him good berth!

Shipped deckhand June of ’fifty-one
aboard the freighter Willis Kerrigan,
chartered to Union Sulphur and Oil
(stack colors dull ochre, black)
and carrying coal from Norfolk out
to Dunkerque, France on the Marshall Plan
—old Liberty de-mothballed in Baltimore,
shaken down, painted over, and papered
with a pickup crew, scourings of the seven
saloons of Hoboken, Mobile, Camden, Pedro.

Here we are, bosun, carpenter, watches. Jake,
Cox, Wally, Slim, Chips, the Finn, myself,
Ole, Moe, Chris the Dane, Pete Foss, bosun,
average sorts of monster, more or less:
brawler or bragger, wino, nut, nag,
bully, slob, simpleton, thief,
this carp of leaden contempt,
this john aspiring to mackerel,
these sponge, crab, clam,
bottom-feeders almost to a man,
lungless on land, finless afloat,
sifting the margin of muck
with sodden sense and cramping gut.
Adrift in wide iron belly
amid tall waves always at world edge,
sailors are liable to misadventure
into monstrosity, forgotten
elsewhere, lost to themselves.
Near
mutiny, storms at sea, quarreling
drunks, fistfights, a broken screw, two
stowaways, a crewman’s fiddle stolen, heaved
overboard or hocked, kangaroo court and Moe
condemned to dine alone for dirtiness,
Wally of the middle watch busting open
lockers, out three days slugging hair tonic,
shaving lotion, as if the stuff were scotch,
Lulu and a second whore clambering
over the barges and hustled below
before the ship had ever touched a dock.
These the adventures, nothing legendary,
just “adventures,” nothing more, anecdotes
from someone else’s less-than-war.
Otherwise,
our common peaceable humanity’s
old routine: chipping gunwale rust
soogeeing the wheelhouse down, bow watch
under the stars, the coffee pot perking
day and night, the binnacle’s hypnotic
click-click-click, meals and meals, cards
in the mess, Pete Foss’ lined face pokered
around his pipe, sunning out on the hatches,
winch work, fire drill, boat drill,
endless talk of sex, endless trivial
housekeeping chores of homeless householders
wandering on the wide wide sea, sleep
in the throbbing, rolling, roaring, yawing, shivering tub.

Each from his isolation, each
from transmogrification,
his little pleasure
or lengthy sleep,
a sudden gracing woke;
the mast, our common labor,
a confluence of task and wave,
of waves blown into wind,
the one the pure transparent day
brought us there together.
At the infinitesimal inter-
section of these historic enterprises,
commercial, national, imperial,
within an indefinable cosmic
context, six of us climbed the mainmast
with beaknosed hammers, buckets of paint
to scrape it clean, to make it new.
Gulls dove, dolphins rolled,
sun swam ahead on the sea,
and we wind-jockeys on bosun chairs
in our thrilled community
let lines go and flew, out around
the dancing lodgepole of the turning sky
that first and dazzling morning of the world.

Irving Feldman, “Six Sailors” from Collected Poems 1954-2004. Copyright © 2004 by Irving Feldman. Reprinted with the permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
Source: Lost Originals (1972)
More Poems by Irving Feldman