The Chesapeake opens beneath us,
a woman spreading her skirt wide
to greet the Atlantic, already throbbing
with September winds at her feet.
I learn to lay down a trot line,
haul hungry crabs to the surface, tossing
the lucky red-bellied females back.
I learn that fish gasp in upper Bay
pollution, that sea grass cries,
that watermen chug out at dawn past
clanging buoys and clearing mist
hoping to net their catch for the day.
I learn that heaven is right here
in these blue waters, the upside-down sky,
that the spirits of old sailors walk
on our bow at night, telling lost stories
about Tangier Isle, Shanks, Queens Ridge,
Piney Island. I learn how love
of the sea can rush right through you
with the wind, until your heart is translucent
with joy as intense as pain.
copyright Pris Campbell, from her book Sea Trails: Poems and 1977 Passage Notes. Posted with permission from the author.
Notes on the poem and the poet, and my fondness for the Chesapeake Bay
This poem speaks to me on a number of levels: it captures the Chesapeake in specific terms I understand, having grown up on those shores, and it calls up an emotional relationship between us and nature that is hard to put into words. I love that final explosion of feeling — the way the sea and wind rush through you, the intensity of joy and pain. I’ve recently completed a series of stories set along the shores of the Chesapeake (in the 2014: A Year in Stories project), and I’ve also just written an essay on literature and my relationship to watery places, from the Chesapeake to New Zealand. So… the Chesapeake, many miles and years behind me, is looming large in my creative space. Perfect timing to read Pris Campbell’s work going back to 1977.
I came to know Pris Campbell’s poetry at Blue Five Notebook, where she has been featured several times — here, for example, and here with Scott Owens. I also became aware of her reflections from a sailing trip down the east coast of the US, assembled in a book called Sea Trails: Poems and 1977 Passage Notes — something I was immediately drawn to. I ordered a copy of her book a while back, and it sits on my small shelf with other poets I admire. Sea Trails is no easy book; it’s as much about a relationship as it is about the writer’s relationship with the sea — the latter far less tumultuous. In her forward, Campbell describes how she and R planned the trip in the mid-70s, how they lived and saved for two years to purchase a boat and set sail, and how she struggled to get a bank loan in a time when loans were not granted to women without the co-signing from a partner or spouse. By the time they were ready to set sail, the relationship had changed for the worse — but, as Campbell writes, “the trip had taken on a life of its own”… and so they went. The book is filled with poetry and log notes from that eventful and life-changing trip down the east coast of the US, from Massachusetts to Florida.
I find the log notes as revealing as the poetry — informative and focused on observations and experience. An interesting balance to the more introspective poetry. Here, for example:
Lognotes: Sept 15-17 St Michaels, MD Chesapeake Bay
We arrive in St Michaels for St Michaels’ Week, with events such as the log canoe races, the old boat parade and exhibitions at the old Lighthouse. St Michaels is a small town, quiet and unsullied by tourism. Hope it will stay that way. We find Dave and Margaret here again, along with other boats we’ve seen and visited along the way.
It strikes us again that we’ve seen so many familiar faces over and over on our trip so far. We’d thought we would be traveling mostly alone but discover that there’s a very real, moveable community of boaters going down the coast with us. The values are noticeably different from most places on land. We’re often in situations when we could use a helping hand or offer one. Boaters say, ‘Don’t thank me. Just pass it on’. We find crop-haired military men sitting down at the chart table with long hairs. Neither would probably have passed the time of day on shore. It’s an experience in communal living much more profound than the one I had found on shore.
And then, as they are leaving the Chesapeake:
Sept 27-Oct 3.
We slowly make our way through higher seas down past Solomans, where we pick up mail sent there general delivery, then to Milford Haven where we stay Sept 30 to Oct4. Small craft advisories, steep seas and 25-35 knot winds hold us there. We meet Pete and Alberta from Turtle. They saved 12 years on a modest income to build Turtle and travel. They’ve sailed for three years around South America, Mexico and the Keys and are now living in a trailer onshore and working to go for seven more years on the boat. They ‘home-schooled’ their two daughters those three years. Both are now in regular high school for the year and doing well.
We’ve met two types of dropouts over the years. Most of the ones onshore who are healthy and dropping out to make a ‘statement’ have been dependent on Welfare or some type of government support. Seagoers drop out in a self-sufficient way, via savings and working along the way. They’re more like the old Pioneers, going towards something, not away.
Near the end of the book, the poet declares rather un-emotionally:
Our journey is suddenly over.
There are a few more poems, an indication that the story contains one or two more storms before things are settled, finally. But the writer handles The End with her characteristic un-sentimental hand, even while creating content that resonates emotionally. Here, for example, in the opening of the poem, Endings/Beginnings:
troublesome back inflamed
and fed up,
I pack my duffel
to take flight for
my parents’ home,
a good doctor.
We’ll figure how
to split the boat later.
Our own split takes no
The dream is over
but I’m not awake yet.
Our mouths meet,
for the last time,
moat bridges down,
since we no longer have
castles to protect.
Once again, we become
thunder. Stars form
constellations around our heads,
The wind hums our song.
My heart cracks
into a thousand pieces,
falling as winter rain,
and I don’t want to leave
this moment, despite
my cheering fans,
circling birds, clouds
puffing their chests with joy
over our ending.
Poet biographical note
Pris Campbell has been published in numerous journals such as PoetsArtists, Wild Goose Review, Chiron Review, Bicycle Review, Outlaw Poetry, The Dead Mule, Rusty Truck and more. Sidelined by ME/CFS in 1990, she makes her home with her husband in the Greater West Palm Beach, Florida.
Tuesday Poem is a collective of poets who share poetry on a weekly basis across borders and time zones. At the TP hub this week you’ll find “A wimper after the bang” by Emily Manger, posted by TP editor this week, Tim Jones.
For more Tuesday Poems, go here.