The backstory’s always of hardship, isn’t it?
No-other-choices and hoping-for-better
on foreign shores. A minute ago, as measured
by the sand dunes here, the shipping lanes were thick
with them, from Hamburg, Limerick, towns
along the Oslofjord, and lucky to have found
the work. The Michigan woodlands hadn’t been denuded yet
(a minute ago) so one of the routes was
lumber and the other was a prairie’s wealth
of corn. There’s a sort of cushioned ignorance that comes
of being born-and-then-allowed-to-live-in-
safety so I used to think it must have been more
forgiving here, less brutal than the brutal North Atlantic
with its fathoms and its ice. But no.
The winds, the reefs, the something-to-do-with-
narrower-troughs-between-the-waves and lakes like this
are deadlier than oceans: in
a single year the losses were one in every
four. We come for the scale of it: waters without
a limit the eye can apprehend and—could
there be some mistake?—aren’t salt. Dunes
that make us little which if falsely consoling is right and
good. Where commerce lifts its sleeping head.
If I had the lungs for diving I expect I’d be there too
among the lovely broken ribs and keels. Visitors need
a place to sleep and something to fill up the
evenings, it’s natural, the people in town
need jobs. Calamity-turned-profit in tranquility. My
father’s father’s father was among the ones
who did not drown. Who sold his ship
and bought a farm.
What is it about the likes of us? Who cannot take it in
until the body of a single Syrian three-
year-old is face down on the water’s edge? Or this
week’s child who, pulled from the rubble, wipes
with the back and then the heel of his small
left hand (this time we have a video too) the blood
congealing near his eye then wipes (this is a problem,
you can see him thinking Where?) the hand
on the chair where the medic has put him.
So many children, so little space in our rubble-strewn
hearts. In alternative newsfeeds I am
cautioned (there is history, there is such a thing
as bias) that to see is not to understand. Which (yes, I know,
the poster child, the ad space, my consent-
to-be-governed by traffic in arms) is true and quite
beside the point. The boy on the beach, foreshortened
in the photograph, looks smaller than
his nearly three years would make him, which
contributes to the poignancy. The waves have combed his
dark hair smooth. The water on the shingle, in-
different to aftermath, shines.
There was once, says the legend, a terrible fire or as
some will recount it a famine and
a mother bear with her two cubs was driven
into the lake. They swam for many hours until the
smaller of the cubs began to weaken and,
despite all the mother could do, was drowned,
then the second cub also, so when the mother reached
the shore which then as now belonged
to a land of plenty she lay down with her face
to the shimmering span whose other side was quite
beyond her powers of return. The islands
we call Manitou, the one and then the other, are
her cubs, she can see them, we go to them now by ferry.
And maybe that’s what we mean by
recreation, not that everything lost—remember
the people to whom the legend belonged—shall be
restored but that it does us good
to contemplate the evidence. The lake,
the dunes, the broken ships, the larger-than-we-are
skeins of time and substance in which
change might be—we’ll think of it so—not
hostile but a kindness..
Copyright © 2016 by Linda Gregerson. This poem was commissioned by the Academy of American Poets and funded by a National Endowment for the Arts Imagine Your Parks grant.
"German, Irish, Scandinavian: in 1860, eighty percent of the seamen who earned their living on the Great Lakes were recent immigrants. Manitou Straits: on the lake bed between the Manitou Islands and Sleeping Bear Dunes lie the carcasses of more than fifty ships. When my great grandfather sold his cargo schooner in 1866, he made his way from Milwaukee to Newport, Wisconsin, and used the proceeds to buy the farm that is still our family farm."