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The Labrador Summer


ISSUE:  Spring 2006

 
1833


Above latitude fifty, seasick,
as far north as he’d ever go,
Audubon understood why
they called it the land God gave
to Cain. Unable to sleep or stand,
he rocked in his bunk aboard
the schooner Ripley, as in
the higher branches of a tree,
considering how many ways
the word Labrador defined
a dismal coast, its unforgiving
stone pressing from cliff sides
kept raw by gales, a country
too tough even for sheep.
And the sea itself, tossing
and rolling stones, heaping
the shores with them, piling
them on each other like egg fields
dangerous to cross. He saw how
dirty weather could fool you,
lifting to reveal a fleet of sails
that in his glass turned
snowbanks, though it was June
and butterflies drifted above them
for the moss-kept flowers. Another
change of anchorage and it would feel
like Boston in December, save for
mosquitoes thick as those
in Plaquemines Parish bayous.
From a harbor without a name
he wrote, The bird for this place
must be the blackpoll warbler, its song
like the clicking of pebbles together
five or six times
, apt for a land
with no earth, only stone,
and moss you sank through
to the knees or deeper, and evergreens
you tromped through like a giant
because they stood a foot tall.
On islands sprinkled across
endless bays, every fissure in rock
seemed to hold a cormorant
or guillemot tending its eggs.
He was forty-eight, weary
and often soaked with bog walking.
He’d counted nearly a hundred and fifty
schooners together on the cod banks,
smelled harbors fouled with fish waste,
looked everywhere for a pied duck,
its kind gone from the earth forty years later.
Drawing from first light at two a.m.
until the pencil cramped in his
hand, he cursed fog that dripped
from a spar onto the paper
and the blackflies scribbling
at his face. Seventeen hours
at the table some days, not to compete
with the Creator, only to copy His works,
to finish the birds on his list,
to add some wild peas and a Labrador
tea plant to his drawing of
a willow grouse.

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