Tramp Ship “Minocher Cowasjee”
Fate was stowed crudely,
Profit driven, in your holds
At Vladivostok, and your Mate ignored,
So that you wallowed in the troughs,
And in Jakarta he walked off.
Fifty years are gone,
And still I hear your signals
Fill the ether through the howl
Of that terrible rotating storm.
“SOS Minocher Cowasjee
Bound for Capetown from Jakarta,
And my reply:
Reverberating on polished mahogany,
Thumped out on a brass key,
Heavy, solid, reliable and honest;
Thumped out onto groaning masts:
“Steamer Mahanada –
Out of Capetown for Colombo –
Eighty miles from you –
Unable to alter course –
Will come when we can“.
That’s all I can do,
I am eighteen how old are you?
Although I cannot see your face,
You live in a stream of intelligence,
And wireless men can read emotion.
You do not see the grim set
Of our captain’s face.
“I have to keep her head into this
Or we’re over,
Tell him we’ll come when we can”.
We have dynamite below.
On deck two black locomotives strain
At their lashings like captive mastodons.
Our forward hatches are buried.
Astern the screw lifts free-
Then thuds into the sea again.
You call a few times more until-
In your holds,
Crates of Russian machinery smash
Into sacks of Javan rice.
A decorated Serang – steady,
Cropped grey beard – hajji,
Grapples with the davits.
In the hot oil mist of the engine room,
A clear eyed engineer
Is mobbed by frightened lascars
Crying out in Bengali –
And she goes over –
To be filled – and begin
Her bone snapping,
Five-mile journey down,
Into the Mid-Indian Basin;
To lay crumpled in the silence
Of the floor of the abyssal plain,
And be gazed upon forever
By lamp-headed fish.
Harry Nicholson 2003/revised 2010
It was a long time ago but I still think about it. The Suez canal was still blocked with scuttled ships in 1957 and so we had to go the long way round. In those lonely seas between Capetown and South Asia a Pakistani ship was overwhelmed close to us in a cyclone on 24 Jan 1957 with 51 crew. A week later I met her British mate in a bar in Colombo; he was the only survivor because he had walked off the ship after his protest that she was badly laden was ignored. (A Serang is a senior Indian sailor equivalent to a boatswain)
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
This numb disaster
Lives compressed like old haiku
And scraps of sutra
~ ~ ~
Passage Through Bab el Mandeb
(A memory of the Brocklebank steamer
SS Marwarri in 1960)
The steam turbine throbs down the Red
Sea road, through the oiled steel deck,
the rust-streaked hull, in the dreaded
dripping sweat of the Red Sea road.
You have never seen such colour,
it’s a molten sea of brass, splashed
across with mazarine, and Mocha
burns in orange low away to port.
The sky, blinding at the zenith,
fades into asses milk along the horizon,
across the ovens of Punt,
Eritrea and the Sudan.
Javelins in volleys –
flying fish pursued by nightmares –
break surface, trailing
necklaces of silver.
Then, like salamanders dancing
in a furnace, tortured islands
rise up twisted dead ahead –
shimmering anvils of the sun.
out of long-dead mahogany.
Decades of varnish soften
and creep down bulkheads.
The banded funnel exhales
black smoke in rippled pulses
that hover, then drift away astern.
The phosphor-bronze screw thuds out
the passage of time. But
the crew are ghosts in history now,
scraps of memory, as the old ship glides
through the Gates of Weeping.
Begun 2003, revised Oct 2010 for the Brocklebank Reunion.
Harry Nicholson, one-time chief radio officer, SS Marwarri.
(Bab el Mandeb translates: “Gates of Weeping” – these are the straits at the southern end of the Red Sea across which slaves were carried out of Africa to the markets of Arabia)
~ ~ ~ ~
Hilda on the Shore
She picks her way with the ebb,
along the Scars towards the Nab.
In her ears, the breakers boom,
like the Roman opinions of Wilfrid –
that man come from Ripon
for the synod at Streonshalgh.
Then Cuthbert’s quiet, Celtic mind
from the north touches her,
even across the sea from Lindisfarne,
as gentle as the boneless sea hare
that glides through the bright,
clear pool at her feet.
Under the Abbey cliff she kneels –
touches the serpent coiled in stone;
then black arrow-heads she ponders,
a mass of devil’s bodkins fused
in death upon a slab of shale.
From the pool a face is staring;
her Saxon eyes are vivid still.
Her ring finger breaks the surface
and Caedmon’s music fills her breast;
She smiles to see the hydra yield
its secret heart beneath her gaze.
Jan 2006 revised 9.09