a mother & son poem for two voices
“I can remember on this last trip out of New Bedford we ran
into a hurricane off of Hatteras. I was in the rolling bed with
my mother and the ship masts came down parallel with the
water. The water was coming down the stairways…”
—Interview with James Earle in 1974, recounting an event in 1906
Sometimes I think he had his sea
legs first– It’s good for a boy
Swimming in the ocean blue
surface and he is in view
to be at sea, there’s no better air
than the freshening wind over open water,
a blow of water from his spout
in view of the lookout
and he may well go on to learn
his father’s trade,
There she blows!
out we row
although that must wait for later—
he is at home among canvas and swells,
surface, sound, surface, sound
up the bow, down the bow
and he loves to spy flying fish
which skim the surface about the bow.
rolling over waves
sharpening our blades
He has not yet learned to fear storms
as I do, he is strong—
throw the harpoon, in his hide
time for the sleigh ride
and has his father’s constitution—
sometimes he even sleeps through gales!
up and down, going fast
add another harpoon for his stash
Once I watched him slumber, the gimbaled
bed rocking to wave rhythm,
there’s the blood from his spout
he is dead, he is fin out
the scuffling feet of the crew above deck,
and I invented words to a lullaby,
now tie him up in a rope coil
so as to turn him into oil
the tune as old as salt,
while rain teemed down on the bark.
strip him of his blubber
we make more than selling lumber
The Captain’s quarters
kept us snug and warm, womb-like,
put the oil in barrels
so people can light candles
–Is it any wonder men refer
to vessels as she?
throw out the carcass, drink some ale
time to find another whale.
Note: At the turn of the 20th-century Honor Earle traveled for several years with her husband, Captain James Earle, on the whaler “Charles W. Morgan,” enduring the hardships of a lengthy sea voyage while raising her young son, Jamie. The voices of Honor & Jamie in this poem are a playful work between a modern poet mother and her son.
This poem is from my manuscript, “Wood to Skin,” a collection about the 19th-century whaling industry that I am currently completing. The poem is a poem for two voices, written in part by myself, and in part by my son, and features the reality of life for a Captain’s wife raising her child on a whaler during the early 20th-century. It’s based on the historical record of an actual whaleship.
I believe it fits this theme of Mothers Play/Mothers Work because parenting is often a little of both, even more so in the cramped Captain’s quarters of what was essentially a floating factory at the turn of the 20th-century. Also, it was an opportunity for my son and I to “play” and “work” together, to create this piece.
I was selected as a “38th Voyager” on the “Charles W. Morgan” in 2014. That summer, Mystic Seaport Museum sailed the “Morgan,” which is the only wooden whaleship left in existence, up the New England coast for research on what was deemed the “38th Voyage.” The “Morgan” sailed 37 voyages as an actual whaler previously, before being decommissioned and becoming a museum artifact.
As one of 85 “38th Voyagers” (defined by Mystic Seaport as “artists, writers, scientists, historians, actors, musicians, and others, the voyagers used their own perspectives and talents to document and filter their experience to share with the public.”) my proposal was to create this collection of poems, inspired by the logs & artifacts of the “Morgan,” and whaling history in general, from which this submission derives. More on the “38th Voyage” and it’s significance can be found at the Mystic Seaport website, www.mysticseaport.org/voyage/.
I am a museum professional, historian, and poet. I have two previous collections of poetry (chapbook & full-length) and my poetry has appeared in such journals as “Modern Haiku,” “Alimentum,” and “Calyx,” as well as anthologies. I also often collaborate with visual artists as well, and have had poems on display in local contemporary art galleries and museums.
Joanie Di Martino
Joanie DiMartino has work published in many literary journals and anthologies, including Modern Haiku, Alimentum, Calyx, and Circe’s Lament: An Anthology of Wild Women. She is a past winner of the Betty Gabehart Prize in Poetry from the Women Writers Conference. Joanie is the author of two collections of poetry, Licking the Spoon and Strange Girls, and is completing her third manuscript, Wood to Skin, about the 19th-century whaling industry, for which she was a 38th Voyager on the “Charles W. Morgan.” She has spent over 20 years in the museum field, and currently serves as the director of a historic house museum. She lives in Mystic, CT.