Poetry. Yes, poetry.

04Jun13

There is no good reason for what I’ve posted today. Forgive me.

Sometime in 2006, not long after I came home from Iraq, I was at Barnes and Noble with my wife. We saw a flyer for Poetry Open Mike Night. I have no training in writing poetry, and the only poem I remember writing was a very bad one to my wife when we were dating. But for some reason, when I saw the flyer I thought, I’m going to write a poem about Iraq and read it to everyone.

So I did. I wrote a poem about being on nighttime convoys, with the imagery and sounds of those missions. I just dumped it onto paper, practiced a little, and read it at poetry night. It was pretty well received, and one woman in the audience even asked if she could write down one particular verse because she thought it was so powerful. I was moved by the fact that anyone liked it, much less thought any of it was good enough to remember. So I continued writing poetry for a little while.

And I discovered, as many aspiring poets do, that 90% of poetry is depressing as hell, and 8% is about nothing at all. At every poetry night I heard stuff like “So yesterday I saw a butterfly AND IT REMINDED ME OF DEATH!”, or “The clang of the bell was as lugubrious as field mice traipsing through unfettered shoals of a schoolgirl’s awakening loins.” Rarely, I’d hear something really moving or actually deep.

I remember one man, who told me he suffered from depression and bipolar disorder, reciting his really beautiful poem completely from memory. The poem was about him and his father at a bar, and his father’s advice to not be so shallow. They see a mildly attractive but not stunning woman, and the son dismisses her because she’s just “okay”. His father suggests the son go talk to her, to “look at what she’s got, don’t look at what she’s not.” That line stuck with me, because it’s the kind of thing my father might have said to me, and what I might say to my sons. That young man, cheerful despite his problems, delivered that line perfectly. I was impressed.

I wrote a few war poems, read them at a few events, and decided I didn’t want to write just depressing crap. I didn’t want to prove the almost-joke, “Death is the reason poets get up in the morning.” I needed to do something different.

So I wrote the piece below. It’s not as long as it looks. I don’t know where it came from, other than maybe my Catholic School years. I had zero connection to or interest in pirates, but there they are.

I read this once at a poetry event, and actually got a standing ovation. It wasn’t expected.

I hadn’t looked at this poem or written any more poetry in about five years. But this poem has been on my mind. So I decided I’d post it, just to see what the reaction is. I’m genuinely curious to see what you guys think.

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to praise or brutally criticize at your whim.
———————————————————-

SISTER MARY

They were stalwart an’ brave
fightin’ and thievin’ each day
Each’d lived a pirate’s life since a child

They sat at the tables
And spun sailors’ fables
In this tavern where sea stories run wild

And seated at their head
Was a tall figure of dread
A captain whose evil was known all ’round

He was fierce, he was fearless
In battle he was peerless
And his pirate’s killer instincts were sound

But trouble was afoot
In sailors’ heads doubt’d been put
Rumors their stalwart cap’n was afraid

Of what, no one knew
Yet the rumors rang true
So for the cap’n’s courage, they prayed

The captain looked up from his ale
And said, with face pale
“I’m a-hearin’ some scuttlebutt from you lot

Ye’ say I’m a-feared
been brought near to tears
by demons, serpents, spooks or some rot

So I’ll tell ye this night
An’ set all yer’ minds right
There’s no man, devil or beast on this earth I’m afraid of

I’ve never backed down from cannon, musket or knife
I’ve slept through more tempests than you’ll see in your life
An’ I don’t flinch at grapeshot screechin’ down from above.”

The captain leaned in
Gave his men a sly grin
Then suddenly his face turned the pallor of stone

“But alas, me fine crew
I’ve held a wee truth from you
There was once one who could turn me’ blood cold

‘Twas many years past
when I was but a wee lad
Before I ran to a life of crime on the sea

And tho’ I’m loathe to admit this
For I’ve no wish to look skittish
Sad fact is, the one what scared me, was a she.”

The men gasped, and they gaped
Such talk they could not take
Their captain could never be ‘fraid of no wench!

“But lads,” said the captain
“You’re not understandin’
this lass was more wicked than me own stench

She was round as she was tall
Maybe ten stone in all
With the white hair and grey eyes of a ghost

Not younger than eighty
But I say to ye, mateys
This woman had fists like fenceposts

She dressed in black cloaks
And she praised all the popes
For lads, this terror, this wraith. . . was a nun

She taught at me’ school
An’ at any break in the rules
She’d fly at ye’ like a banshee at a dead run

If she caught yer soul strayin’
She’d come a-swingin’ and prayin’
Aimin’ to rattle your teeth in their sockets

Ye’d dare not fight back
Cause when she’d attack
Ye may’s well try to fend off a rocket

“I forget her proper name
so many nuns’ sounded the same
but hers it was Mary, Mary somethin’ Irish, and odd

McPherson? McDade? McAllister?
O’Grady? O’ Sullivan? Oh, it’s no matter
We lads called her Sister Mary; Sister Mary, mother o’ god

But not to her face!
Of ye’ there’d be nary a trace
If she heard any such blasphemy roll off your tongue

Per’aps we could be brave
With her eyes turned away
But before them we stayed silent as the sun

“She was so fearsome, so mean
She’d stamp out the obscene
Enflamed she was with the power of the lord

An’ if she suspected
Yer brain evil thoughts had infected
She’d slap them right outa’ yer’ gourd

She’d stalk down the hall
At the pace of a crawl
Flailin’ to an’ fro with a switch

An’ if contact she made
It’d sting like a blade
Then she’d hiss the shrill laugh of a witch.”

The men mumbled and grumbled
The first mate stood and stumbled
Took a drink, drew a breath, and demanded

“But cap’n, how could she,
no matter how pushy
cause a man, such as ye, as a coward be branded?”

The captain spat a reply
“True, it sounds as a lie
But lads, ye didn’t know her, and I did!

She could bob, she could weave,
She held a crucifix up her sleeve
And could scare ink from a giant squid

“She’d warded off Satan
and sworn off of matin’
and lads, against a woman like that, ye’ can’t win

She’d swim through hellfire
And swallow barbed wire
Before surrendering our wee souls to the sin

And tho’ it’s odd to me too
I’ll swear that it’s true
This woman, she loved us without pause

She’d beat us like fools
Leave us blackened and bruised
But never make a mark without cause

The captain drank from his ale
And wiped a tear’s trail
Before saying “Then one day, I saw me’ chance and I ran

Straight down to the harbor
Found the first hirin’ marauder
And sailed quick as I could from that land

I escaped her, I did
And I’d not give two quid
To ever again see me’ childhood home

But, curse me, I see her!
With that pious demeanor
She hounds me on any land or sea that I roam

“Late in the night
I’ll see her alight
In the rigging! In the sail! On the mast!

In the hold, on the bow
She stalks me, even now!
On me’ very soul her shadow’s been cast!

Mates, she must be long dead
But I’ve not lost the dread
She whipped into me when I was but a lad

And I’ll go to me grave
Not courageous or brave
But humbled, shamed, fearful an’ sad

“Lads, I fear for no god
And the devil’s a sod
I care not what level of hell, send me wherever there’s room

But try as I might
I can’t hide me’ fright
At the thought of meetin’ Sister Mary in me’ tomb.”

The captain gave a last look around
Then he rose without sound
And strode out past the men he commanded

He gave no glance back
As the voices went slack
And the gathering of sailors disbanded

When they set sail at dawn
Not a comment was drawn
’bout Sister Mary, the cap’n, nor his fear

But the sailors now knew
That the myths were untrue
’twere no krakens, no serpents, ’twas clear

the howls in the night
that gave sailors such fright
were no goblins, no demons, nor Neptune’s rod

But the wail of an immortal soul
Who the accursed captain would forever know
As Sister Mary; Sister Mary, mother o’ god

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21 Responses to “Poetry. Yes, poetry.”

  1. Standing ovation here too, Chris. I don’t know if the poetry is good, but I like the hell out of the poem and want to borrow it. We’re having a high school reunion in October – 48 years, ’cause at our age we can’t wait for round numbers. Sister Vivian has agreed to come if her health permits and I think hearing a recitation of “Sister Mary” would be a treat for her. I promise to give you credit as well as apologies for the presentation.

    Keep writing …

    mikey

  2. 3 Stretch

    Worthy of Robert Service.

    • I just looked him up, and read “The cremation of Sam McGee”. Thanks, but I bet Robert would be a little insulted. He was pretty good. 🙂

  3. 5 Mikey

    I read your poem all the way to the end,
    And then, before going, I read it again,
    And seeing not a single Nantucket,
    I scoffed and said, Well…

  4. 8 M. A. Baxley, Jr.

    You better watch out, this conversation could degenerate to a certain “pun” level of literature!

  5. 9 Mike M. in GA

    nicely done. Takes some stones to move outside your comfort zone. follow your muse.

  6. 11 Dave L.

    I remember, back in high school, the school paper had an ‘arts’ section, poetry and drawings and such. And you’re right – 90%, if not more, was depressing as heck. My friends and I actually made a game of adding “Death.” as the last line to all the poems, and it almost always fit.

    One of my more sarcastic and genius (guy ended up getting a Ph.D. in physics from MIT) friends wrote the ultimate parody poem.

    Poo
    Up my butt
    With starlight.
    Death.

    And I remember my 4th grade teacher reading The Cremation of Sam McGee to our class, along with Casey at the Bat.

    Since I left Plum Tree
    Down in Tennessee
    It’s the first time I’ve been warm.

    • Man, I am hearing more great poetry since I posted this… I’ll have to try adding “death” to everything. That may get me recognized as a great poet, and then I’ll finally get a big publisher and movie deal.

      Thanks for the comment, Dave.

  7. 13 Mike_C

    Loved it. Agree it is at least worthy of Robert Service. As to criticism, I suppose you could tighten up the meter a bit in parts, but a great poem nonetheless. For some reason it put me in mind of “The Thong of Thor” by John Boardman, though “Sister Mary” is rather more high minded.

    Re Deep Poetry: my best friend in high school submitted the following to the school literary magazine. It was accepted and published. (As we did not have all that much to do with the literary crowd I don’t think we ever found out whether they realized it was a parody.)

    I’m glad
    I’m not
    A fish

    IIRC the title was something like “Meditations on the Meaning of Self” or something similar — one of his goals was to have a pretentious title longer than the poem itself.

    • Mike,

      That sounds too believable to be untrue. Make up some ridiculous poem about the meaning of life, make a title longer than the poem itself, and it’s accepted with open arms.

      I guess that’s like any other kind of art though. It’s in the eye of the beholder. Some guy in his 40’s has probably been carrying that poem folded up in his wallet for 20 years, reading it for inspiration.

      Thanks for the compliment, I appreciate it. I’ll take a look at tightening it up, but to be honest I don’t really know how to do that with a poem.

  8. 15 BobF

    Just back home from a trip and found this. Product of Roman Catholic education K-7, I swear you must know at least three of my Marionite nun teachers. Except for the physical description, much/most else fits, at least in the mind’s eye of that age. Got many a welt on the back of my neck thanks to the cincture they wore (but it wasn’t MEeeee, Sister!” My schooling was ample evidence that some liturgical garments had everything to do with the Inquisition. Oh, and by the way — that is some very good writing, too!

    • Bob,

      I was also terrorized by multiple nuns. I’m totally over the religious belief now, but I have to admit those nuns were good women who cared about us. Thanks for the compliment, and for sharing your story.

      Chris

  9. I didn’t know nuns controlled your education Chris! They brought down the yard stick on fingers… but luckily never mine.

  10. I don’t read poetry very often, but I loved this and would gladly read more.

  11. Have you ever considered creating an e-book or guest authoring on other sites?
    I have a blog based on the same topics you discuss and would love to have
    you share some stories/information. I know my visitors would value your
    work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to shoot me an e-mail.


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