Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Surface, by Peter Munro

Swept among seas that walk downwind,
beaks and feathers wheel to hook and pick.
Skimming low, fulmars heel and spin
speed.  Their twines knot the world to its quick.
I learn to listen with my skin.
Gusts kiss me, whispering their cold.
Caressed in tempos that whitecaps kick,
rust scours my vessel, fills her holds.
She presses into a surface nicked
by birds feeding where salt unfolds.

Fulmars chitter.  Kittiwakes yelp.
White streaks the backs of waves as if scars.
Whipped sinuously, like bull kelp
waving down current when the flood spars
with land or the ebbing sea whelps
tide pools upon dried out shorelines,
white betrays the gale where each gust tars
the surface.  I learn to read signs,
brushed scrollwork rolling out so far
meanings merge where whitecaps align.

My trawl leaves the surface behind.
The net descends from the broken backs
of seas through currents the moon aligned
in layers, sinking from black to black.
I tow her where my eyes are blind.
I listen as her sonars call
to my vessel, sending pings and clacks.
A granite outcrop snags her crawl,
strikes her dumb as chains and footgear wrack.
Among fins and gills, silence falls.

Thanks to Seattle poet Peter Munro whose poem 
is posted with his permission. 

—Editor: T Clear

When I asked Peter Munro to send me a poem, I knew that he was up in the vast north on a fishing boat doing research, and thought it a marvelous opportunity to give this post one of the things that I love to do when reading poetry — to place the poet in a landscape relevant to what is being composed. In my humble opinion, this particular landscape is high drama with a bit of the romantic involved. (Although I'm dead certain that Peter would deny any aspect of the romantic notion.)

Over the past few months, at at open mic that I attend, I've listened to Peter read, in sequence, "chapters" of a 31-page poem titled The Baptism of Mack MacListon. After the first few times I heard him read this, I gave up trying to follow the narrative, and instead gave in to the spectacular music of it. At once it's like listening to Debussy blended with Nine Inch Nails. He gave me a hard copy of it a month ago, and I'm slowly making my way through - the music as present on the page as when experienced in a purely auditory fashion.

I also asked Peter to send some words, in addition to his poem, on his location - and he came through, generously. Without further commentary, from the Gulf of Alaska, here's Peter Munro:

My calling is poetry.  However, I am fortunate to have a second calling that allows me to make up for income deficits in the poetry biz.  In my day job, I am a research fisheries biologist.  I love the work.  I am part of a team that contributes to the stewardship of commercially important fish stocks in the Gulf of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and the Bering Sea.  Specifically, we contract with small trawlers to carry teams of researchers out to sea and conduct research fishing according to statistical protocols.  We use our catches to estimate populations of bottom fish such as cod, halibut, flounder, and rockfish.

I was working on this poem when T. Clear asked me to send her a piece to use in Tuesday Poem.  When this poem comes out, I will be nearing the end of a fifty day trip in the Gulf of Alaska, working in the latter two-thirds of a seventy-five day survey that stretches from Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutian Islands, to Ketchikan, in Southeast Alaska.  We send the trawl down to the bottom 5 to 7 times a day.  It takes about an hour to fish then one to three hours to process each catch into data plus additional time for managing data, tending to fishing gear, and making fishing decisions with the captain.

Once the vessel’s crew have dumped the catch into our sorting table, we more or less do everything else by bending our backs, hoisting and shoving a lot of 30 kilogram baskets of fish.  We sort by species, weigh, count, dissect to determine sex ratios, measure lengths, take certain body parts for determining the age, and then conduct a number of other special, more one-off projects.  It is slimy, bloody work.  The crew numbers three on deck working with us and the scientific party numbers six.  We all put our noses into the muck dumped from the cod-end and tease each other till the work is done.

The boat is the F/V Sea Storm, a 123-foot, house-forward, steel trawler built by MARCO in Seattle in 1980, christened as the Doña Genoveva.  She is one of the most beautiful vessels in the North Pacific, though definitely on the small side by modern standards.  Her lines are derived from old-school Norwegian shipwrights, translated through the western combination design developed on the left coast of the USA after engines began to displace sail, and that came into flower during the king crab boom of the 1970s.  She would be too expensive to build today, requiring far too much cold-rolling of steel to produce the curves.  But she rides like a champion, a sweet motion that seems to be completely predictable; no sudden lurches or surprise throws.  Her skipper swears she can take any weather, even though only 123 feet.

Truly the Sea Storm is old school: she was built for fishing, with living-on by humans being a Norwegian afterthought.  The quarters are crammed far, far forward.  I’m living in a room with three other guys with less than a meter between our two stacks of bunks.  We can’t all four stand in the room at the same time, much less get dressed or open a locker.  One of the women in our field party bunks with the cook and the open door to the galley and all the conversations bellowed there over the sound of the main and the generators.  The other woman in our party has her “own” stateroom, smaller than a closet, but it’s where we work up our data so she isn’t really able to be there except after we’ve all gone to bed.  There are twelve people on the boat and a total of ten places to sit down, including the captain’s and pilot’s chairs up in the wheelhouse.

To work on poems, I get up at 4 in the morning, since most of the rest of our company stays in their bunks until 6.  Net goes in the water at 7.  We try to work hard enough to be too tired to notice or care that none of us can sit down without touching another person (usually a being we wouldn’t be inclined to touch at all and especially not this much).  I won’t mention the smell other than to remind you of fresh water rations and weeks of sweat, pollock blood, cod intestines, arrowtooth flounder slime, and shortspine thornyhead scales.  Every day I shrug into my foul weather gear, tromp out on deck, breast up to the sorting table, start slugging fish, and marvel that I’m getting paid to do this beautiful work (said without irony).

The skipper says to mention the fresh fish.  (I have written this in the galley and simply cannot ignore editorial input from my shipmates.)  We do get to eat fresh fish: spot shrimp for lunch today.

The skipper has also grumped at me that there are eleven places to sit down, not ten.  Those eleven seats still feel more like five.

I’ve blithered on this long about research fishing because I love it.  However, poetry is my real gig.  Please visit my web site: www.munropoetry.com

When I’m not at sea I live in a bedroom community to Seattle, Washington, USA, with my wife and our two sons.

This week's editor, T. Clear, manages a glass art business in Seattle, producing and shipping work for galleries and gift shops all across the U.S. She has been publishing her work for over 30 years, and her first book-length manuscript, Dusk, is forthcoming from Floating Bridge Press in 2014.     

When you've emerged from the sea-blown world of Peter Munro, please do check out the poems from our thirty Tuesday Poets in the sidebar.   

Copyright details in the sidebar.                                                                                                                                                     


Ben Hur said...

Peter paints a vivid portrait of the wild ocean he works in. And really great to get that background information about his work and where it takes him. His family must miss him when he is at sea for a long time.

Michelle Elvy said...

Fantastic. I can't decide if I like the poem or Peter's very vivid account of his shipboard accommodation (cramped smelly quarters with spot shrimp for lunch!) and his work and inspiration more. My kind of thing. I do love the poet's careful choice of words here, the sounds and images that come alive in this salty poem, from that first mention of seas walking downwind to the chatter of the fulmars and kittiwakes to the silence at the end. My favourite part is how he feels the elements around him. Best line, for me: "I learn to listen with my skin."

I enjoyed your introductory comments too, T. Especially the description of Debussy meets Nine Inch Nails. That's got to be something to hear.

Oh and because I love the sea and these "old school" vessels, I could not help but go search for a photo of Sea Storm. Found some images on Flickr. Go check them out, poets!

Mary McCallum said...

Oh I love this poem for its sounds - some familiar not so - hook and pick, chitter, yelp, pings and clacks... definitely for listening to - and the way those sounds provide the sinew of the poem - and as such evoke the place and define the space... reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins' work in some ways. I am with you, Peter Munro, riding your version of the wimpling wing...I am entranced by T's description of Peter and his work, an Peter's descriptions of his life on board ship and how he finds time to write poetry. Thank you both.

Helen McKinlay said...

This poem has a wonderful sense of place. I am there on the boat too...
Methinks it is because the writer is so present in his occupation and as he says loves his work.
Although I'm not a great one for nets
I really like these lines
'The net descends from the broken backs
of seas through currents the moon aligned
in layers, sinking from black to black.
I tow her where my eyes are blind.
I listen as her sonars call
to my vessel, sending pings and clacks.' A whale net... As well,the description of the work and the living space is a pleasure to read.
Thanks for this Peter and T.for posting.