The Lake Boats*

Edgar Lee Masters

 

In an old print
I see a thicket of masts on the river.
But in the prints to be
There will be lake boats,
With port holes, funnels, rows of decks,
Huddled like swans by the docks,
Under the shadows of cliffs of brick.
And who will know from the prints to be,
When the Albatross and the Golden Eagle,
The flying craft which shall carry the vision
Of impatient lovers wounded by spring
To the shaded rivers of Michigan,
That it was the Missouri, the Iowa,
And the City of Benton Harbor
Which lay huddled like swans by the docks?

You are not Lake Leman,
Walled in by Mt. Blanc.
One sees the whole world round you
And beyond you, Lake Michigan.
And when the melodious winds of March
Wrinkle you and drive on the shore
The serpent rifts of sand and snow,
And sway the giant limbs of oaks,
Longing to bud,
The boats put forth for the posts-that began to stir,
With the creak of reels unwinding the nets,
And the ring of the caulking wedge.
But in the June days -
The Alabama ploughs through liquid tons
Of sapphire waves.
She sinks from hills to valleys of water,
And rises again Like a swimming gull!
I wish a hundred years to come, and forever
All lovers could know the rapture
Of the lake boats sailing the first spring days
To coverts of hepatica,
With the whole world sphering round you,
And the whole of the sky beyond you.

I knew the Captain of the City of Grand Rapids.
He had sailed the seas as a boy.
And he stood on deck against the railing
Puffing a cigar,
Showing in his eyes the cinema hash of the sun on the waves.
It was June and life was easy....
One could lie on deck and sleep,
Or sit in the sun and dream.
People were walking the decks and talking,
Children were singing.
And down on the purser's deck
A man was dancing by himself,
Whirling around like a dervish.
And this captain said to me:
"No life is better than this.
I could live forever,
And do nothing but run this boat
From the dock at Chicago to the dock at Holland
And back again."

One time I went to Grand Haven
On the Alabama with Charley Shippey.
It was dawn, but white dawn only,
Under the reign of Leucothea,
'As we volplaned, so it seemed, from the lake
Past the lighthouse into the river;
And afterward, laughing and talking,
Hurried to Van Dreezer's restaurant
For breakfast.
(Charley knew him and talked of things
Unknown to me as he cooked the breakfast.)
Then we fished the mile's length of the pier
In a gale full of warmth and moisture
Which blew the gulls about like confetti,
And flapped like a flag the linen duster
Of a fisherman who paced the pier -
(Charley called him Rip Van Winkle.)
The only thing that could be better
Than this day on the pier
Would be its counterpart in heaven,
As Swedenborg would say -
Charley is fishing somewhere now, I think.

There is a grove of oaks on a bluff by the river
At Berrien Springs.
There is a cottage that eyes the lake
Between pines and silver birches
At South Haven
There is the inviolable wonder of wooded shore
Curving for miles at Saugatuck;
And at Holland a beach like Scheveningen's;
And at Charlevoix the sudden quaintness
Of an old-world place by the sea.
There are the hills around Elk Lake
Where the blue of the sky is so still and clear
It seems it was rubbed above them
By the swipe of a giant thumb.
And beyond these the Little Traverse Bay
Where the roar of the breeze goes round
Like a roulette ball in the groove of the wheel,
Circling the bay;
Beyond these Mackinac and the Cheneaux Islands -
Beyond these a great mystery!

Neither ice floes, nor winter's palsy
Stays the tide in the river.
And under the shadows of cliffs of brick
The lake boats,
Huddled like swans,
Turn and sigh like sleepers -
They are longing for the spring!



 

*The New Poetry, H. Monroe & A. Henderson, eds., The Macmillan Company, New York, 1946

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