Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, A NORTHEASTER, by WILBERT SNOW



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A NORTHEASTER, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: For two bleak days the warning pennant red
Last Line: Scudding her way through space with every reef let out.
Alternate Author Name(s): Snow, Charles Wilber
Subject(s): Hospitality; Storms


For two bleak days the warning pennant red
Above a red square flag, foretold the gale;
The louring storm clouds, torn to many a shred,
Patrolled the sky till the frightened sun grew pale;
Southwestern flurries shook the weathervane's tail
Before the churning sea went foamy white;
Then from the feared northeast arose a wail
Which whined its way to every bay and bight,
And darkness hung like smoke on the blue-black shore that night.

With clocks to punch the surfmen dragged their feet
To cliffs where keys were chained, embrowned with rust,
Their swinging lanterns, beaded thick with sleet,
Lit up black rubber boots against white crust;
Toward daybreak, in the calm that trailed a gust,
The watchman spied a wreck on "The Roaring Bull,"
Shot off a Costen light with hurried thrust,
And roused his comrades for a long hard pull
Against a dead head wind and combers brimming full.

Three hours feathering oars against the breeze,
They reached the John P. North, where eyes looked wide
On their deliverers, though running seas
Foretold a battle with the bucking tide:
Where heaped up breakers swaggering jealous-eyed,
Watched for their chance, the boat was jockeyed near
The guggling maelstrom at the schooner's side,
And seven tight-lashed sailors lowered clear,
While wolf-cries on the wind drew ratlines taut with fear.

On lumpy light-green swells they neared the land,
The oars were shipped, the waves made quick retreat,
The men jumped out, and through the scratching sand,
Hauled up the boat, each pulling on a cleat:
The seaweed freshly green beneath their feet,
The bonelike driftwood strewn around a dory,
The wind through half-dead trees, the cliffs where beat
Infuriated seas, the fishers hoary,
Etched in a Spartan scene on a granite promontory.

A door swung, and a woman aproned white
Bade all come in, "We haven't much", she said,
"That's fancy, but we'll try make out a bite
Of something if you'll eat plain meat and bread."
The men devoured the table's ample spread
Of steaming pancakes, bacon, marmalade;
Kindled their pipes and snugly billeted,
Moved to the big front room where birch flames played
Over the braided rug and varnished swordfish-blade.

About the stove they sat, safe from the gale,
And told the story of the night before:
How, in the blinding snow they shortened sail,
Seeking the shelter of a harbored shore;
And how, amid the breakers' bellowing roar,
The ship misstayed and grated on the reef,
And how they wrote on scantling from the floor
Their names, and pinned them to their coats that grief
Of seekers for the dead might know some slight relief.

Talk drifted back to that unrivalled height
Of terror on the North Atlantic waves, --
The gale that struck the Portland in the night,
Hurrying all on board to deep-sea graves, --
Frozen to rigging, lashed to heavy staves,
Tossed up on rocks where spruce trees meet the tide,
The men and wrecks on island reefs, in caves,
Bestrewed the coast next morning far and wide, --
And pipes went out as each recalled some friend who died.

Another breathless tale that night they told;
How Captain Kidd hove to off the thorn-plum tree,
And sent four men with bars of Spanish gold
In iron chests ashore, but only three
Came back: the fourth was murdered quietly
Beneath the moon; his ghost still wanders there
Annoying treasure-hunters who would free
Those yellow bars from his bleached bones, and dare
Tarnish the pirate's fame still luminously fair.

These yarns made strong and salt with seacoast phrase
Led up to song: a sailor tried the keys
Of his harmonica in various ways,
And cleaned it out by thumping on his knees;
A ballad-singer, feeling quite at ease,
Warbled of John B. Gordon, Mamie White,
Bold Whiskey Johnny, and a bracing breeze
Of Western ballads whose rough notes delight
The men who hold in scorn the loftier poet's flight.

Twelve quick metallic strokes called loud for sleep;
The crew went out and scanned the pitch-black sky,
Then in soft beds of sheldrake down sank deep,
To dream of wives whom sleep that night passed by:
They heard no more the breakers boiling high,
The pear-tree drubbing on the gutter-spout,
The rote on distant ledges, or the cry
Of earth, -- a ship released at one great shout,
Scudding her way through space with every reef let out.





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