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POEM: Building The Boat

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After Winslow Homer, Ship-Building, Gloucester Harbor, published 1873, wood engraving on newsprint, Avalon Fund
From the Winslow Homer section of the National Gallery

Building The Boat


in the beginning, it was obvious
they were building the boat to flee
resources were scarce
so they were meticulous in the
placement of each plank and the
sewing of each stitch in the sailcloth
carefully they provisioned the craft
and chose only such crew as wouldn’t
miss the homeland, having
no kin to leave behind
the boat was nearly complete
when the first earthquake hit
destroying most of the houses
in the center of town
that afternoon they dismantled the boat
using its planks to build houses
and covering the windows and doors
with the sailcloth to keep out the wind
in time, they sawed new wood for planks
sewed new sails and built a second boat


no one saw the attack coming
certainly relations with the neighboring village
had been strained of late, but the dawn slaughter
of so many innocents startled even
the most cynical among them
fortifications were built from the planks
and uniforms from the sailcloth
they turned away from the surf
and waited for the next wave
behind the barricades
this time the boat-building took longer
there were fewer of them than before
and they had to range farther to get the wood
most of which they gathered at night
when it was safe — or at least safer —
to move beyond the town’s boundaries


by the next autumn they’d finished
this hull was less glorious than the first
or even the second, having been built
from what wood was left
it was seaworthy, though,
standing in the harbor
waiting for those lucky enough
to have berths upon it
the crew had nearly finished loading the hold
when an argument started between the captain
and the chief shareholder
about the planned destination
one said west, one said south
and no entreaties by third parties
could convince either to relent
life went on much as before, and
the fully laden boat rocked on the tide


the submarine nosed toward the wreckage
disturbing the fish who swam between the planks
through the sand kicked up by the sub’s propellers
the doorway to the hold was just visible
it was through this space that the divers slipped
sliding past a hang-hinged door, beyond
the reach of the sub’s light
the divers switched on their flashlights
to reveal row upon row of unopened boxes,
casks and barrels, all neatly tied, waiting

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