Signing on Again

Elizabeth Bradfield

Down crew-only stairs—paint-chipped rail, hand-grimed bulkheads, watertight door’s caution-striped sill—to crew mess. Sit at sticky, vinyl tablecloth (deep bluewater) before ship’s registry (a white craft afloat). Sign in, sign on: name, address, emergency contact, bank details. Instructions slurried through Finance’s Greek & Safety’s Bulgarian accents. Nod understood, understood when sentences end in crest. Get lifejacket with green laminated card carabinered to chest, billet number on front. All expedition staff P-something. This time: Papa Nine Three.

a memory:
ship aground, ebbing tide
dark, cold lapping sea

Submit certificates vouching competence: medical, crowd management, Zodiac operations... Paper to normalize and make of any possible disaster indemnified routine.

More by Elizabeth Bradfield

Why They Went

that men might learn what the world is like at the spot where the sun does not decline in the heavens.
—Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Frost bitten. Snow blind. Hungry. Craving
fresh pie and hot toddies, a whole roasted
unflippered thing to carve. Craving a bed
that had, an hour before entering,
been warmed with a stone from the hearth.
 
Always back to Eden—to the time when we knew
with certainty that something watched and loved us. 
That the very air was miraculous and ours.
That all we had to do was show up.

The sun rolled along the horizon. The light never left them.
The air from their warm mouths became diamonds.
And they longed for everything they did not have.
And they came home and longed again.

Pursuit

for Arctic Explorer Donald B. MacMillan
Provincetown, September


All summer, town kids pose at the edge
of the pier named after you

and leap. I’ve just flown home from Baffin,
Mac. A month of spotting polar bears,

lecturing on tundra as raw wind shrugged us off,
then winter chased us down the coast.

But it’s still season here, and so I’m at the gangway
loading a boat to look for whales. 

Boys dash between pickups. Girls strut
the edge, do the same. No one throws coins for them,

but I know you jumped for the bright glint
tourists threw, and (I’m sure) for the thrill

of being watched do it. These kids leap
to break the hot September days and because tonight

they might find themselves midair, recorded
by some out-of-towner’s gadget and posted online

for view-count and comment, their currency. Would I
have strutted, have jumped at their age, yours then? I can’t decide.

At high tide, their knees are eye level from my place
on the finger pier. One girl wears a silver bikini. 

It shines like ice on the horizon. I can’t help but stare.
Suddenly, I see it is desire

that links us, that galvanizes
the thin substance of our ambitions.

Learning to Swim

after Bob Hicok & Aracelis Girmay

Now forty-five, having outlasted some of
myself, I must reflect: what if I hadn’t been held
by my mom in the YWCA basement
pool, her white hands slick under

my almost-toddler armpits, her thumbs
and fingers firm around my ribs (which
is to say lungs), held gently as a liverwurst
sandwich and pulled, kindly, under?

What if I hadn’t been taught to trust
water might safely erase me those years
I longed to erase or at least abandon care of
my disoriented, disdained body? I might have

drowned instead of just ebbed, never slid
from given embankments into this other
course. 
             Drift and abundance in what
she offered. The wider, indifferent ocean
of trade and dark passage not yet

mine to reckon. And so now, sharp tang
of other waters known, I am afloat, skin-
chilled, core-warm, aware of what lurks
and grateful to trust and delight
in our improbable buoyancy.