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Paintings in the Peabody Essex Museum

by John Barrale


The Margaret, 1800:

I remember when I was formed,

how the hewn logs fit

as they were spliced

and bolted,

and how the master carpenter smiled

when he saw that part of me assembled.

He was my father, and Salem

where my ribs rubbed

on the shore’s gray gravel,

was my mother.

A week later, they gave me a keel,

and upon that they placed a keelson.

At my stern a post was carved.

Ribs of oak, like stout laughter,

sprang up and out.

As I grew so did the giant womb

that contained me.

Guy ropes like rough, oily membranes

held me to the land

though with every breeze

I strained for the sea.

Like all embryos I was parasitic

and fed from everything around me:

white oak from Danvers

became my ship-knees,

Rockport maple my decks,

yellow pine from Maine

my inner skin,

and the locust

for my trunnels

came from Cape Ann.

The Nantucket Quaker who paid

said I sucked the forest into me.

After two new moons, I had decks,

bulwarks and cabins.

The shipwrights’ work was done.

Ironworkers followed.

They forged my chains and pulleys,

and cursed the sparks

that singed their beards.

Caulkers and joiners sealed me.

Carvers gave me a gingerbread railing

and bright quick-work on my bows.

Paneling graced my cabins.

Painters gave me a lemon-yellow waist

to set off my blue-black topsides.

In the Captain’s quarters, pale blue,

like secrets, whispered.

Before I was launched I was pretty,

had definite perfections—

as a human child

floating in her mother’s womb

shows beauty’s promise

in the swirl of a face,

and the precise, clean lines

of forming fingers.


The Malay, 1818:

Tall, over six foot, she was a goddess

and not of this earth

though, like me, formed from wood.

She rode to me chained on an ox-cart.

Humble, though it was,

she sat it like a throne.

The ragged children who never went to school

and played all day on the docks

stopped their games

and ran yelling after her.

Barkeeps, sailors, and dock girls stared.

Bold, she was poised to fly forward

and never look back.

Her gold-trimmed gown,

cinched at the waist,

billowed behind her.

Her figure was full,

and her crossed arms strong.

Fancy were her curls,

and red

her painted lips.

Her face, bone-white,

was serene,

almost accepting

of the storms

I would push her into.

Below her bare feet, a wreath lay.

Beneath that an open scroll

with the name, “Malay”.

My figurehead. My name. My soul.


The Friendship, 1797:

At last I was complete

and trembled

as the blocks

were knocked from beneath me.

Still a thing of the land,

and of the rough

but kind hands

of men,

I took a long time

to slip my moorings.

It was winter.

Many in the crowd,

cold and bored,


Finally, the Shipwright’s daughter

broke a bottle on my prow,

Be thee a prosperous ship.

In the name of God,

I christen thee Friendship.

With a great splash,

I hit the water.

Oh how I bobbed, a silly

vain thing,

all thin masts

and furled sails.

Docked nearby, two old East Indiamen

their decks flamboyant

with flags and bunting,

their waists below

the waterline


and barnacled

caught my wave—

and on it

rose and fell.

John Barrale’s poems and flash fiction has been published in numerous online and print publications. Most recently, his work has appeared in Unrorean, East Meets West—American Writers Review, Icon, Narrative Northeast, Pidgeonholes, Passager, Sensations Magazine, and Molotov Cocktail. Along with five other “Gang of Five” members, John hosts and curates a free monthly poetry reading series, The Red Wheelbarrow, held at The William Carlos Williams Center in Rutherford, NJ. In 2012, John joined the all-volunteer staff of “The Rutherford Red Wheel Barrow” poetry anthologies as one of its two managing editors.


February 2018

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