Summer, 2003

Michael Shorb

Two Poems

Whale Walker's Morning

Few records survive of the whale walkers
Of the 19th Century.
Primarily American, with a scattering of
Dutch, Greek, and African,
Whale walkers based around the
Boston-Nantucket area once
Numbered in the hundreds.

They counted the Joseph's coat,
The Minoan seed pearl and
The harmonica of the Indo-European
Virgin among their lineage.

Unlike their leaner-visaged brothers of the harpoon
They staked their eliteness to light about
The feet, an ear tuned to a keening wind,
A finer sense of balance.

Of their concrete origins in sea crossings,
Tribal dances and the strut of mountain
Axemen not much more is known.
Some have linked them to rites among
The Phoenicians, to gypsies of the Asian
Steppes, to the tree at the edge of the world
In Nordic mythology, to intimates of the migration
Routes and open country roads of earth.

Of whale walking itself a little more is known.
Both ancient brass tint photographs and early
Oil paintings exist, though these provide no doubt
A dusty geometry of the total picture.
A few famous individuals: Nordo the Aborigine,
Jack Clappe, and Cavebear Eddie, followed
The practice of having their first walked whale
Tattooed on their chest.

At any rate, reliable depositions of the time
Attest to the existence of large whale herds
Which often made hours of uninterrupted
Whale walking possible. Observed from a distance,
It resembled a kind of aquatic dance, to which
A number of variations existed.

The necessity of timing whale walking sessions
To coincide with periods just after early
Feedings along migration routes,
Coupled with the necessity of near perfect
Weather conditions led to the adoption
Of the popular turn-of-the century phrase:

"It's a whale walker's morning,"
Or, variously, "A whale walker's morning
To you and yours."

Two Songs

The image invades my mind
Sleet, grease and blood
On the Russian front
An old peasant woman
Reported seeing a young
German soldier walking
Down a frozen road parading
A bayoneted infant
Like a flag.

It was after a shooting session
All these Russian village Jews
Packed in a pit, shot in row
After row, covered in
Gravel and black farmland
A day's work completed
But for one small victim
Inexplicably paraded
And impaled before the Reich.

What struck the witness was
How the infant continued its cries
How on the brink of the bayonet
It made a wheezing stubborn
Sound like a smudged and trampled
Blueprint for a song, and how
The soldier sang as well
Walking down the road mouthing
Words to a lyric about villages
Lined with chestnut trees.

Sometimes in a dream of gloom
I wonder about that soldier
Wonder when it was that justice
Caught him, karma drew a noose
About his bull-headed neck,
Wonder what disease visited his
Old age and burrowed into his sleep
Like pinching worms with
Eyes like pinpricks of fire.

The hell is I have no idea this happened:
He may have lived long in the shade
Of those fucking chestnut trees
Had ten kids of his own, been called
Father, loved one.

Forgotten, at any rate, that winter day
When he stood over the infant
Singer and wielded all
The misused power in the world
When a man carried a dying
Infant like a toy, when two songs
Were left behind, clinging to a frozen road.