By Clark Zlotchew
Night. The smallest hour.
I reach my ship and pause,
before climbing the gangway
to the shadow-shrouded quarterdeck,
the murky maw of the beast,
before ensconcing my weary self
in the bowels of the behemoth.
I inhale deeply.
The fresh salt air
with the heat that radiates from land.
The brisk briny breeze
With the pungent aroma of raw tobacco leaf,
with clinging odors of human sweat,
of cheap perfumes,
The crisp clean fragrance of the open sea
is locked in combat
with the rotting tang of tropical earth,
with the stink of decaying vegetation.
I search beyond
my shadowy steel vessel,
gaze toward the horizon,
the invisible horizon,
the black horizon.
The bay is black.
The sky is black,
but the bay is blacker
with a slick, oily blackness,
a glossy blackness
that glows and shimmers,
A polished black jewel
under a bright light
in a shop window.
Tiny points of light sketch
the invisible curve of the bay,
where the shore holds the line
against the aqueous tide.
The lights form a necklace of pearls
on the black plush bed of a jewel case.
A string of pearls on the dark throat,
on the dark breast,
of a lovely lady,
or a diadem of lemon jade
crowning black tresses.
Lights that separate night-blinded water
from night-blinded land.
Black abutting black.
In truth, the lights embrace tall masts
of seaworthy stalwarts destined
to dash bravely,
to crash gayly
through tempest and squall,
splitting the sea, heaving white foam.
Now shamefully imprisoned,
moored to tropical piers:
Swift greyhounds tethered
in stone-paved courtyards.
Other specks of light,
at different points within
the burnished black bay,
gently swaying, revolving,
slowly… slowly… slowly…
(as in nightmares of futile flight)
around an invisible sun,
a black sun:
Vessels at anchor, each
gently turning on her axis.
Those glowing mast lights:
Beacons of hope in their restricted plight?
Candles to cheer the gloom of night?
Torches that flame with pride and might?
I lift my eyes to the black
The contrast jolts.
The mast lights below are pale,
The mast lights are stale,
sickly yellow, jaundiced, sour,
compared with the bright,
blue-white sparkle of stars overhead.
But the stars glint hard as diamonds,
cold as ice.
They are shards from a blasted iceberg
Throughout the vast heavens,
Throughout the black depths of endless space.
I’m suspended in time,
Suspended in space.
I’m one of the lights in the bay,
swaying yellowly in the darkness
under the illusion of motion,
becalmed in a stagnant black ocean,
circling in place.
I’m one of the stars
in the most remote,
in the most frigid
regions of outer space.
Knuckles keep rapping on my walls.
Pounding fists of furious raiders
rouse me from serene slumber.
It’s the wind which blasts and blusters
and bashes and buffets
burly boughs of robust bushes
against my house, my home,
my harbor, my haven.
I am sleepless.
The gale fiercely rages with all her might,
driving all not bolted down before her,
an enraged banshee who shrieks in the night,
rips branches from sturdy trunks,
deep-rooted, well-anchored trees
which bend to avoid a break
but stubbornly stand their ground,
while younger, shallow-root willows
succumb to ferocious gusts,
which ruthlessly wrench them
from the bosom of Mother Earth,
like teeth brutally juddered,
impatiently tugged from gums
by a drunken dentist late for supper.
While I am sleepless.
These scenes play on the screen of my mind
as I toss and turn and try to unwind
in the night, in the dark, in my bed.
I hear, I feel, the gale grow stronger,
whistling through quivering branches
like nimble fingers madly strumming
through over-taut strings of weary harps,
like heavy breath propelled through reeds,
through recorders, oboes and bassoons,
in a maddening offkey cacophony of sound
conjured by demented woodwind wielders
frenetically forcing air through hollow tubes
in the orchestra pit of Hades.
I am sleepless.
At intervals the woodwinds mellow,
recall the drone of highland pipes,
pour forth smoothly flowing syrup,
which tastes of amber and yellow,
growing soft, they gently murmur,
tenderly hum, croon loving lullabies,
soothingly suggest the yearned-for gift
of blessed unruffled sleepy slumber.
But the squall lurks in ambush,
slyly skulks through deep forest,
stealthily stalks through the bush,
furtively prepares her savage assault.
This deceptive creature, this unseen phantom,
this mendacious, hellacious, treacherous beast,
springs from her lair, her talons unleashed,
roars like a blood-maddened tiger,
howls like a wolf at full moon.
I am sleepless.
How can air, which I cannot see,
cannot hold in the palm of my hand,
dash like a greyhound, fly like a falcon,
bellow like a lion trapped in a pit,
launch heavy objects like hostile projectiles,
demolish houses, uproot trees,
as though she had hands or paws with claws,
as though she crunched and munched with her jaws.
I am sleepless.
Perhaps she hates her invisibility,
resents her lack of detectability,
unless she moves, becomes wind,
shows her destructive capability.
Incensed she is taken for granted,
wishes to impress her reality
with her ferocious bestiality.
I hear knuckles rapping on my walls,
pounding fists of furious raiders.
I am sleepless.
Requiem for Barbara
A cold black wind
as it whirls
as it snuffs out the flame,
a flame once dazzling,
of a candle near forgotten,
a candle so distant,
a candle once close.
I stare, wondering,
at the photo of an old woman,
Gaunt and drawn,
in an obituary
that exploded in my face,
that bruised my heart.
Half a century has slid by,
Like a stone launched on ice,
In the sport of curling,
In a game I never witnessed.
A lifetime has slipped past me
Since my then-young retinas
Last captured her vivid image,
Her fleeting image.
This melancholy photo,
this dismal portrait,
this death’s head
under tissue-paper skin,
under the thinnest of parchment,
with the yet-living vision
impressed upon my brain,
burnt into my memory,
of a beautiful,
a girl of seventeen.
I knew her from her sixth year,
when I was eighteen.
I still hear her laughter.
I feel her merriment and glee.
She was a brook overflowing her banks,
a torrent of effervescent liquid,
bubbling and sparkling with mirth,
dancing to a lively inner song.
I see those eyes of yesteryear,
those sparkling chocolate eyes,
brimming with mischief,
that float below the weary eyes,
the Inky eyes on white paper,
In that black and white photo,
the murky eyes,
Sunken in dark hollows,
At the far end of a cave,
into the approaching mystery,
not with fear, not with joy.
With quiet resignation.
The photo is a cheat, a liar,
a two-dimension deceiver.
It smacks me, jolts me,
those eyes are now closed for ever.
She will be in a better place,
dancing on pink clouds,
but this old world,
my old world,
is suddenly bereft.
Song of the Salt Sea Rover
The old man climbs to that space in the attic,
filled with dust, and cobwebs and memories now ancient.
He crawls on all fours, searches and finds it:
A cheap old suitcase, battered and beaten,
like the old man himself, broken down, and decrepit.
He stares at this memento, this relic, this keepsake,
and he remembers.
Memories flood over him like the oceans he traversed,
when fierce winds drove waves like mountains of water,
to crash on decks of ships he sailed, threatening
to cause the frail craft to founder and plunge
deep down and deeper, down and way down
to the bottom of the sea,
to bring him and his ship to anchor
in the briny domains of Davey Jones.
But it always flew up and out of a watery Valley of Death,
to surge toward heaven on the back of a beast made of water.
When he was young, he yearned to break out
of the hemmed-in circle of an East Coast City,
confined to this one little point, chained to this spot
on the map of our world so enormous, so immense,
which stretched out before him to what seemed like infinity,
which seduced with its vastness, its beckoning giganticity.
He peered through a window as through a glass darkly
at sky above and river below, river azure, river sky-blue,
mirror to the heavens above and beyond,
celestial strip flowing through cities
so crowded and grey.
He watched enormous ships ply north and ply south,
dreamily gazed at vessels on route to its mouth,
work-a-day tankers and commonplace freighters,
gleaming-white cruisers for tourists on vacations,
pleasure ships, adventure ships, bound for exotic locations,
castles in Spain, fountains of Rome, a Wall in Cathay,
and to isles of the sea where dark-eyed girls swing and sway
‘neath date palms in trade-winds, to pulsating rhythms,
to the beat of the drums, to the beat of his pulse.
In his head, in his heart, in the depths of his soul,
to see them, to know them, became his chief goal.
He bought that cheap suitcase made of cardboard and glue,
cashed in his last paycheck and told off his boss,
signed on to a freighter to work and to sweat,
to swab decks and load bales in cold and in heat.
Tonight, his gaze rests on that beat-up old suitcase,
and the old man reminisces on his peregrinations
to the outermost lands of the bright golden sands,
where he felt the thrill of sighting new coastlines,
feeling new climates, greeting new nations,
sailing north to the end of populated lands,
Murmansk and Hammerfest, those old arctic ports,
steaming south, to the end of all human habitation
to a town named Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego,
where fragile mere humans have put down their roots
beyond the former edges of his too-well known world
beyond his imprisoning and limiting horizon.
Forty years he roamed on seven stormy seas.
He lived and he loved in moist heat of the tropics,
He lived and he loved in winter-bound harbors
He lived and he loved till vigor waned and departed.
He drags the shabby suitcase down the dusty stairs,
to set on his white bear rug from Kodiak Bay.
Old and decrepit he sits by the fire
to sip his rum toddy, and play on guitar
tunes recalled with wistful nostalgia
for things that were and are no more.
His gaze on that suitcase, like him old and scruffy,
a veritable sea chest filled with journeys and exploits,
a treasure trove of memories of persons and peoples
and storms and tempests and hurricanes ferocious,
of labors and dangers and brawls in seedy taverns,
of friends and lost shipmates who have sailed their last voyage,
and of women he once loved and who had even loved him.
Songs of the Brave Departed
They sang of hope and glory, they sang with fierce devotion.
They fought with courage and pluck, for that they crossed an ocean,
to spill their blood in fields not theirs and die on dusty plains,
with no one near and dear to them to assuage their ultimate pains.
One released his final breath in an agonizing sigh,
no time to speak a final word or moan or even cry,
no girl his hand to take in hers, or give a final kiss,
to die ‘mongst strangers all alone, alone to face the Abyss,
in a land remote and distant from all he ever knew,
a heath far from those green meadows where he was born and grew.
That soil is now his rough bed, where he gazes with unseeing eyes
at the glare of the sun, that ruthless sun, burning in those skies,
skies made of brass that reflect and augment a pitiless sun’s heat,
where vultures wheel and glide like shoppers at a market of meat.
But now I hear recordings of their songs so valiant, so bold,
as they marched into the Valley of Death so dark, and so cold.
It crushes me to listen and know they all were hopelessly doomed.
Their voices remain though the singers who sang lie under turf entombed.
The smoke remains though gone is the fire once hot and bright
weapons of war rust in dust, men who held them, out of sight.
Voices that ring with passion and hope have the ring of authenticity.
When I know, looking back, they had no chance, I feel a terrible pity.
Clark Zlotchew’s poetry and newer short stories have appeared in literary journals in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Germany, South Africa and Ireland from 2016 through 2020. Three of his 17 books consist of his fiction: an espionage/thriller novel, a military/action novel (under a pseudonym), and an award-winning short story collection, Once Upon a Decade: Tales of the Fifties (Comfort, 2011).