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Night Watch on the Chesapeake

ISSUE:  Winter 1985
for Paul Van Dongen

The North Star beams us cleanly down the Patuxent
into the waiting mouth of Chesapeake Bay,
past Sandgates on starboard, Sollers on port,
with a crescent moon rocking us toward day.
In the engine room there are 15 dials to watch;
I check their stories every 20 minutes
—earplugs deadening the engine’s hungry roar—
noting them down in the log: oil pressure in #2
reads a little high: call the pilot house
to back it off a hundred rpm’s. . . .
             I too am waiting.

After Point Patience I stare hard through the darkness,
my eyes knowing where it is, the years
sinking like ships through the watery moonlight. . . .

And there is the spire I have watched for,
deep in the Solomons, whiter than scallopflesh,
slim as the bones of my brother who went with me
to Our Lady Star of the Sea and loved
Sister Margaret and pulled the blueclaws up
with infinite gentleness on chicken necks tied to a string,
who now rests somewhere in the complex currents

off Point Patience where the pirates used to circle
waiting for tides. The good Sister taught us
poetry and my brother never sailed
without his salt-stiff copy of Shelley or Blake
which he’d read to the fish and the stubborn crab
and made his life as rich as any of God’s lost children
could ever hope for, so I finish my coffee,
replacing it with whiskey, wishing it were wine,
and raise my cup in the stern starlight, toasting
Sister Margaret with all her sixth-grade sailors
whom she cannot save, but will comfort through
the cold night watches while they try to decipher
the spinning dials and luminescent whispers of the ship’s    long wake.


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