Paradise Street


I said Good-bye to Kitty my dear

They cut the sea, those days, as the Dutch cut diamonds,
Driving their daisy Blackballers, their dolphin packets,
Bound away from, say, Boston to any place heathen and scented,
Putting, by God, some spice in the eighteen hundreds.
They rounded the Horn, and be damned to whatever Antarctica
Sent up to snap off her sticks in the way of port weather.
The storm in the master was worse. He stumped stem to stern of her,
Thunder and lightning on legs, the eye of his own hurricane.
And out from the broad-beamed whalers they took their Nantucket
Sleigh-rides abaft the disastrous, oil-heavy right whales:
Broken like dolls when one breached beneath them, they drifted
To the nearest land anywhere, usually three miles down.
They were hard-looking tickets, and tough. It took the unsanded
To sail a ship and survive her. The crews, rib and spine, were shaped on
Old ways, with their hearts hammered out on Davy Jones’ anvil —
Oak and iron, every man jack of them, oakum and pitch.
My family once harbored two captains, in a hard life much harder cases:
Devil Jack Brown, born John, and his brother James, known as Bully.
They were lava-mouthed men who seethed at the sight of grim awkward side-wheelers
Stinking their black way across a cinder-befouled Atlantic.
Devil Jack, the fo’c’sle said, got his name from being shipped up here
From Hell on consignment, but no chandler wanted the bundle.
“He never smoked see-gars a-bed, but his berth got scorched frequent by somethin’,”
The fo’c’sle said, “and he trimmed his beard with Saint Elmo’s Fire.”
In the horse latitudes once, becalmed for a week and nigh boiling,
Bully Brown cussed clear through four watches, in Chinese, broad Scots, and Malay:
Lacking horses, or even a mule, he jettisoned ship’s cook and bo’sun,
Picking them up, with regret, when the wind freshened half a day later.
They watched their world founder, those masters of sailing vessels,
Going down stern first, with her proud bow aimed at Arcturus;
And themselves, poor hulks, sargassoed, not worth the salvage,
Entwined in kelp, slept the Sleep by their oxidized sextants.
— What trysts for you now, sad Trades? O where do the wakes go
When the ships long since are hull-down and half-seas-over?
The pier-haunting girls have died inland, whose beaus, taut in canvas,
Bubbled lead-weighted into the ooze, past the weeping porpoise.
My father never shipped out, and with him our eighteen hundreds
Sank with all hands off Maine, while the gulls fought over the flotsam.
Dear God, he felt guilty, though! He once built a lovely-lined clipper
That scudded to Nowhere across our dining room mantel.