Personal note: Jay Speakman fished from Islesford (Maine) for a number of years in the 70s and 80s. He recited this poem at the annual Islesford "Literary Evening" in August 2001. I was struck by its beautiful construction -- very reminiscent of Robert Service, with its frequent internal rhyming -- and unforced rhyming. Jay clearly has a knack for this. He now lives in Oregon, where he helped start the annual Fisher Poets Gathering in Astoria.
A Tale of the Old Muddy Reef
Like a waterlogged duck the lobster boat bucked through an icy Atlantic chop,
It had set in to blow and was threatening snow as I prayed for a little relief.
It was late in the fall and we'd seen our big hauls but for week upon week they'd diminished.
Most of the boats that fished the Maine coast had given it up for the year,
The strategy then for a few of the men who fished from the Cranberry Isles
But the weather turns cold and the Northerlies blow in those dubious last days of fall,
Now I'll freely admit, I'd been tempted to quit, and tie the boat up until spring,
And I had a good boat built of cedar and oak, right in keeping with Downeast tradition.
So, the last day I'd gone I had taken traps on, and I'd handily loaded her down
I was ready to go when a strong Northwest blow had held the fleet in for a week,
But all things must pass and that wintry blast had finally blown itself out.
It looked like a chance but I'd have to act fast, and with any amount of luck,
The ground in the yard was frozen hard as I fetched some wood for the stove.
Across the vault like grains of salt, a trillion stars were strewn,
And from this I surmised that the morning tide would run hard upon the shoal,
The spectre of an approaching storm was of little concern to me,
Awake again at three A. M., and still not a whisper of breeze.
But the buoy report from Cashe's Ledge was enough to give me a scare.
But Cashe's was ninety miles away, maybe even a little bit more,
Without a fret the village slept at a half-past four in the morning.
My dinner bucket tucked under my arm, I crossed the ice-covered float,
When that Jimmy awoke in a cloud of blue smoke, I felt like a man on a mission.
Down East I drove past Bunker's Head Cove where herring seek protection.
Then past Marsh Creek, where on the beach, the bones of a schooner lay.
An hour more, ten miles offshore, on a heading of South by Southeast
In an old union suit and my Norwegian boots, I was snug as a mouse in deep flannel.
I could already tell that a Southeast swell had been building up all night.
With my depth-sounder on in the dark before dawn, I made a survey of the piece.
By the time I arrived, there was quite a strong tide, and an Easterly starting to blow.
Now to each three pots with sheet-bend knots, eighty fathoms of warp were bent.
Then the going got tough, it was downright rough, when the sounder read thirty-two fathoms.
Well, I worked that pile for a good long while, and it seemed to me I was winning.
I had just stepped aft and was baiting a trap when her bow fell off of the wind.
With a hiss the comber came aboard and it swept the washboard clean.
I could scarcely believe that I'd been so naive, as to think I could outwit the ocean.
Some six traps in all, wound up in a ball, were now plummeting straight for the bottom.
Then fathom by fathom the hauler strained to raise that tangled mess,
I cursed the day and the buckshot spray and I cursed the incessant motion.
Then I cursed all the knots in that snarl of pots, and every damned inch of rope.
'Cause a fisherman knows when an ill wind blows, and turns the sea to foam.
Procrastination can have its rewards and right then, I was wishing I'd waited,
Well, I got my legion all strung out and marching three by three.
The mere fact that I was still alive was cause for celebration,
And although it was not yet nine o'clock, I was weary and chilled to the bone.
Some folks want a life free of struggle and strife, while I'd chosen to live on the edge.
Whether hauling by hand right in close to the land, or flogging it out to sea,
That a tiny mistake may be all that it takes when the consequences are dire
Now I'll say in advance, there's a pretty good chance, that I'm always going to remember,
© August 21, 2001 All rights reserved