Follow by Email

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Flotsam and Jetsam

It's Easter, and it seems to be a day for posting poems. How is this related to chronic illness? Perhaps in three ways: first, I can no longer imagine going to the beach and waking along the strand - my activities are so truncated by MS that I feel claustrophobic from it; second, we still care about the world even though we are limited in various ways in our interaction; and third, we feel like so much flotsam and jetsam sometimes, the detritus left behind while others zoom ahead, pursuing life at its fullest. Hence, this poem:

I inherited a piece of jetsam from my grandfather Harold C. Palmer, who found it on Cape Cod, near Provincetown, Massachusetts.


He walked along seaweed strewn sand,
   reshaped by winter’s waves and the spume of the cold, salted tide.
Horseshoe crab shells danced abandoned;
   the water rocked a mottled brown carapace, inhabiting it like a ghost.
Among the black mollusks and white clam shells,
   he saw bits of beach glass - green, brown or rare and cherished blue,
   sanded smooth by endless tumbling in the abrasive Atlantic.
He bent to pick up a piece or two, a habit formed in childhood. 
Today, he did not pocket the speckled and muted
   evidence of man’s existence, but cast them back upon the beach.

On this grey and spattered day, he sought other treasure -
   the flotsam and jetsam of a shipwreck.
The S. S. Portland had gone down with all hands;
   distant cousins out of Maine lost to him forever.
There would be no unpacking the last suitcase,
   no delving through wallets for well-creased and folded letters from loved ones,
   no reverent opening of dark red leather-encased photos to view
      hazy images of those who were held dearest by the ones who died.
All that they carried with them in grey pin-striped vest pockets
   or shiny, black, glass-beaded bags
      was captured by the deep,
   locked with their corpses behind a reef so dangerous
      the wreck was never to be dived upon during his lifetime.

The wind whipped through his navy woolen pea coat,
   the spray drenched him, leaving him chilled and sticky with salt.
He turned to make his way back to the lighthouse, leaning into the wind,
   lifting his hand to his brow and looking down, away from the wet gusts;
As often seemed to happen when he had given up hope,
   his eyes lit upon a dark brown corner protruding
      from a mound of pebbles and weeds.
Picking it up, peeling off the slimy tangled kelp,
   he wiped clean the cast iron face of a eight-inch wide plate.
On the curved face of it, in raised letters, was the simple word “AXE.”
It had once been mounted on the wall, perhaps near the engine room,
   and held a sharpened fire axe ready for the possibility of a blaze.

The crew need never fear the boiler again;
   need never worry over the chance they might have to chop away
      burning beams, dumping them overboard,
   while loading panicked passengers into lifeboats,
      just in case the ship was going down.
No flame would ever again burn in the engine room
   or the water-logged timbers of the S.S. Portland. 
He took the axe holder home and, with a shaking hand,
   wrote “S.S. Portland” on a manila tag.
Then, tying it carefully with pale cotton string
   to the mounting hole in the upper right corner,
      he laid the ship to rest.

© Kit Minden


  1. Such a wonderful narrative, rich with detail. And I like the preface immensely.

  2. Thank you. I think the timing is off in reality, but with no knowledge of how Gramps came to have this piece, it's what I imagined.