By Cindy Hunter Morgan
Wayne State University Press
Reviewed by David Nilsen
In Harborless, Cindy Hunter Morgan's full-length poetry debut, the dramas of Great Lakes shipping disasters are brought into sharp sensory focus.
It is a curiosity of the modern age that few Americans are aware of the role Great Lakes shipping has played in the development and sustenance of American industry. Most Americans are ignorant as to the extent (and even existence) of the enterprise, and correspondingly, they are ignorant to the tragedies and dramas that have played out over the past two centuries on the frigid waves of the Midwest's freshwater inland seas. Some five thousand shipwrecks litter the rocky beds and wind-whipped shores of the Great Lakes, and thousands of lives have been lost in autumn and winter storms in the endeavor to bring grain, ore, stone, wood, and other raw materials to the nation's manufacturers and finished goods to the nation's consumers. Even in the heartland, few think of such cities as Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Green Bay, and others as the major shipping ports they are.
While dozens of books exist chronicling the historical details of the wrecks on Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario, few have chiseled down through the weight of technical facts to unearth the delicate human details of these moments. In Harborless, Morgan stills the raging narrative waters around these events and shows us the emotions and fears that would have governed the solitary human hearts and minds living through them.
In "J. Barber, 1871," a poem in which Morgan relates the story of the titular ship that burned while carrying a load of peaches, she describes not the ship but the peaches themselves, the smells that permeated the air as the succulent load sizzled and charred, causing the ship to smell "like August in a farm kitchen." In "Independence, 1853," we're taken into the thoughts of a crew member clinging to a hay bale in Lake Superior after the ship founders.
One sailor laced his fingers around baling twine
and pressed his face into a bale,
smelling all of central Wisconsin after rain,
something sour and musty and born
of the earth.
She goes on to tell us of his memories turning to the farm girl he rolled in that hay with (literally and figuratively), and of his father's mare fed on those fragrant bales.
In one series of poems about a fictional deckhand, Morgan composites many wreck stories to imagine the sensory vocabulary of Great Lakes shipping, the way smells and sounds and colors mean different things when your home floats upon the mercy of an angry lake. In the first such poem, "Deckhand: Scent Theory," we once again are offered evocative olfactory impressions we might never think of otherwise.
Now what he breathes is rain
and ore, deck paint, grease,
engine oil, boiler exhaust,
Mornings there is coffee.
Sometimes he pours a bit
on the cuff of his sleeve
so later he can press his nose in it.
Morgan has a knack for peering along the edges of a chaotic event and pulling out details that would otherwise be lost. In "Rouse Simmons, 1912," she tells of the sinking of a ship plying the Christmas tree trade, transporting thousands of freshly cut conifers from northern Michigan and unloading them in Chicago. When it sank in an icy storm on Lake Michigan, five thousand Christmas trees entered the waters with it. Morgan focuses not on the wreck itself, but on the confused and irritated fishermen whose nets became fouled with this unexpected harvest: "Fishermen wondered why they caught balsam and spruce, / their nets full of forests, not fish."
In the especially poignant poem "Charles S. Price, 1913," Morgan relates the curious struggle of that ship's oiler, a man who studied to be a doctor in his youth before entering the blue collar trade of shipping. His professional vocabulary is an amalgam of terms nautical and anatomical. As his ailing vessel struggles in the waters of Lake Huron, he wishes he could mend his patient as he might an injured body:
As the steamer began to sink, he did not know
what to treat first—where to stop the bleeding or how
to fit a tourniquet to a whole hull. Now he kneels
on the deck holding a wet towel—useless compress,
old rag soaked with the sweat of his father's fever,
flag of surrender. Sternum, bunker, femur, bowsprit.
There are vocations, both professional and personal, that are so singular in their experiences, so demanding in their requirements, that all those who embark on them are bonded across languages, distances, time. Flight might be one. Childbirth, another. Shipping is certainly among these. In a related way, those of us who have never lived a moment of these vocations but have spent solitary hours pondering them might also feel a sort of bond with those who have trusted their fragile bodies to the principles of lift or the wonder of their own biology or a few million pounds of steel rendered buoyant by engineering. For those of us who have lived most of our lives within a heavy wind's blow of the Great Lakes, there can exist in our hearts a vicarious connection to the men and women who have plied those expanses of ice water over the centuries. We watch the waves bow themselves like mendicants upon Lake Michigan's beaches, begging Chicago to notice, or watch the sprays toss themselves on Lake Superior's cliffs as if they could claw their way to the summits, and we feel something in our hearts crash quietly in response, tugging our bodies back to the warmth of the hearth even as our minds are tugged across the waters like desperate barges. Cindy Hunter Morgan has felt that same tug, and responded with the poems of Harborless.