Until the Sail Came Down

I stayed until the sail came down
the boats all in from Wednesday
racing and this one boat
neatly tied in its slip, perhaps the last,
where all hands reached up
to receive the white canvas
and help it fold along the beam –
so much sail, some fifty feet
of white billow,
and I thought of how much of what
we do is pleasure now.
There is not a working boat left
in this town, where once
nineteen companies running whalers
lined the piers and side streets,
home to Melville and a hundred Queequegs.

We are a different harbor, still
a haven, still snug along the coast
and as good as any place to hole up,
drink, think
or chatter on at openings or smile over
a meal amid the constancy of the aimless.

I miss the utility of my hands
and turn them over, back to palm
so fine lined, small and capable,
they grew up tending horses and rows
of vegetables, lining a cupboard
in the cellar with jam and peaches,
and yes, butchering things – helping
with a hen for supper or a pig in fall, sweet
as muffins they were; friends of mine.
And later, as I waited for my own children to come
rocking on my haunches in a garden of heady ripeness
the days were full of things my hands
took up and put down.

Soon daughter, and before long son, I’ll take
the warm eggs from the cradle of my skirt
and place them in your hands,
give you the key to the padlock
on the tack room door and point for you
the place in the sky where the Borealis appears.
And lastly, I’ll show you how to use
the steel that sharpens both the axe and the hoe.

.

PBSweeney August 2006

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One response to “Until the Sail Came Down

  1. This lovely poem made me cry. Passing on knowledge of the hand’s work from generation to generation is the continuity of love.

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