Tramp Ship and other poems

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.

A shaking:
“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,
Knuckles bloody,
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 –
For mother.

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.

Vapours exude
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.

Harry Nicholson

Jan 2006 revised 9.09

32 Responses to Tramp Ship and other poems

  1. jinksy says:

    I’ve been awash with your nautical memories this morning. My Dad was in the Royal Navy for 22 years and you manged to bring his world very close to me with your words. Thank you!

  2. Leonargo says:

    I am glad that the Sea has kept you well 🙂
    I was completely immersed in your first poem, and imagining those words… mayday mayday… help me… Fortunately I have never encountered a situation such as yours, and never would want to nor wish it upon anyone…
    I can’t imagine being able to write about it either. “gazed upon forever by lamp headed fish” sounds more like what most people would do in recollection of memories such as that.
    Beautiful writings here, truly.

  3. A.T Smith says:

    Thank you for your comment.

    I especially enjoyed your ‘Passage Through Bab el Mandeb’, lovely stuff.


  4. Paul says:

    There is so much worth commenting here but not the time or space, the verses come across as well refined, full of memories and ideas. Thanks for sharing them.

  5. Brilliant! Thanks for sharing this post, such pointed and important expressions.

    • Hello Apryl – I’ve just visited your pages and see that you are a fine poet.
      I see also that you are writing a novel – best wishes for that project; mine appeared in January and the promotion of it takes me to interesting places.

      • I do hope you share your adventures here. Thank you for your kind words, I appreciate them very much. I look forward to reading much more of your work in the future.

  6. lunawitch15 says:

    I am in love with “Hilda on the Shore”
    it justs calls home the old ways.
    all your work is stun ing. thank you!

  7. 1sojournal says:

    Incredibly evocative poetry, Harry. Thank you much for sharing,


  8. tigerbrite says:

    I have so enjoyed reading your poems. The ships and the storms. I remember the suez crisis and seeing the pictures on TV of the blockage. I was a child in England then. I now live in Spain and I too have experienced visions of past lives. Seems the country and the mountains produce the atmosphere to see them. Love and blessings.

    • Hello tigerbrite. Thanks for calling in.
      By a fluke I missed being at the Suez Canal landings – I was on a troopship that was involved; however I found myself instead on an old tramp ship in Barry Docks.

  9. Jingle says:

    welcome ..have fun!

  10. vivinfrance says:

    Harry, I’m confused (but delighted) to find some more poems here that I remember from another place: They didn’t show up on “recent posts”. Re-reading them is a huge pleasure, and they re-inforce my estimation of the considersble poet that is Harry N.
    The Tsunami poem is new to me: superbly encapsulating the recent tragedy.

  11. Wow, I am even more impressed after reading your explanation of the past life vision. I, too, keep an open mind about such things. I also had a waking vision once, of row upon row of blanket-wrapped women in the cold of a winter Gulag – as I was listening to the Pachelbel. It does make one think. Rivetting poem about the ship going down. And your tsunami haiku is perfection.

    • I’m now more informed – I had to look up Pachelbel and now have been hearing it for the first time on Wikipedia. It is lovely.
      The poem the vision referred to is no longer there – but you will have realised that. Perhaps I should repost it . . .
      Thank you for visiting, Sherry.

  12. Thanks so much for stopping by my blog and commenting. I enjoyed your verse!

  13. Harry,
    Hello from Cheshire to North Yorkshire!
    You recently left a comment at my Blog, thank you.
    I have taken a few moments to read through some of your poems and I really have enjoyed discovering your words, very much.
    Words which have ‘been lived’ through your experiences.

    I will add your Blog to my list of Blogs to follow, so that I can return to read and keep in touch.
    Best wishes, Eileen

    • Hello Eileen. Welcome from Eskdale. I’m just in from the garden where I’ve been turning compost heaps and spreading a bit under the gooseberry bushes – time to rearrange the poetry page perhaps, now that the birds are singing.

  14. Isabel Doyle says:

    How refreshing to find some really masterful poetry. I will be back to read some more.

  15. Kim Nelson says:

    Your tsunami haiku speaks volumes. Words are perfectly chosen and strung together here.

  16. Lovely poetry, Harry. I’m so pleased you came by my blog. Now I get to enjoy yours.

    I must say, your beautiful photographs of Yorkshire certainly made me homesick for the place of my birth. I know it’s not Yorkshire but it’s near enough. lol

    • Thanks, Paul. I was thinking, the other day, that all this technology is all too much – I should be on the moor-top instead of on a laptop. But here we are, poets talking across the ocean.
      Do you return sometimes to Bolsover, the place of your birth?

      • Unfortunately, circumstances have prevented me returning to England for the past seven years. I must say though, I do miss the familiar beauty of England. I miss everything about it, actually. The green countryside, the Spring air with the scent of Hawthorne floating on the breeze, the salt air of the English sea-side and walking on the hills in the height of summer. Fish chips and mushy peas too. lol:-)

      • Yes, it can be mutely lovely.

        Across the heather
        Comes from the Scarborough road
        A distant murmur

  17. vivinfrance says:

    Harry, I’m giving up as a poet after reading that. I see by the date that this was written years ago, but on TV the other night in the latest of the wonderful series Birds Britannia, they talked about the skylarks over the trenches. I took some great photos direct from the screen.

    I hope you don’t mind that I’ve saved your poem to savour.

    • I’ll be honoured for you to keep it, Viv.
      It was published in an anthology of Buddhist poets and has a curious origin. I was on a four month retreat in the Spanish mountains. One morning, in meditation, I was overwhelmed by images of struggling beneath the weight of a cannon. I was aware of wearing a pale blue uniform. There was not much else.
      That afternoon I began to write it down and the story line came easily as I added the poetic ‘inventions’ – it just flowed out.
      I told one of the teachers about the meditation. He replied simply: ‘A previous life experience.’
      I don’t know what to make of it. I try to keep an open mind about such things.

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