On Death and the Ocean

Even if you’re the rocket scientist’s daughter, growing up in a fishing community gives you an early acquaintance with two immutable forces: the ocean and death. One of my grammar school friends had a father who fished on the tuna fleet. One season, he just didn’t come back. In a restaurant in San Pedro, you can see photos that show why this wasn’t a rare occurrence. The tuna boats in the 1950 were low-slung, and the men hauled the enormous tunas overhead so fast the deck became slick with scales. Fishing in a turbulent sea, a rogue wave could wash men overboard. Those tuna boats weren’t exactly equipped for rescue missions. That might just be the end, as it was for Mr. Svicarovich. 

This poem, from my book Gods of Water and Air, celebrates the ocean’s devout widows.

San Pedro Trilogy
1. Matriarchs
Widows like lighthouse beacons
with no answering ship.
Old Croat women with black buns
behind square faces staring
grim as garden gnomes
from porches as we children skate by.
Ears studded with fire-opals
or tiny crosses, these matriarchs
nailed to their many losses.
They let the gulls do their screaming.
No one hears them moan to themselves
like boats sawing against the pier.
No one knows they keen with sea bells at night,
Their bellowing erupts into empty houses.
The low-slung purse seiners bob at rest,
their tall cross-masts in dockside rows.
Family enterprises, net-hauling boats
that ride low on waves, flinging their crew
into the sea.
Men who haul herds of tuna
into tanks, unload their daily catch and wait
for a price from the Forty Thieves’ Market.
Yankelovitch and Salieni fare alike
on a good day, though not a bad one, barely
get a living from the sea, less fed than the pelicans.
But fishing’s still a good business,
and most San Pedro families put their men to sea,
the Portuguese and the Slavs, Italians and Czechs.
Here because they know the ocean trades,
they finger rosaries side by side at Mass, count
their catch, then drink and dance
the surplus away at summer festivals
on the docks where bands play loud
beside the bobbing boats in the breakwater dark.
Sea smells drift, mixed with frying squid,
always a scold of salt in your nose,
on the beach the burr smell
of rotten seaweed. The harrying gulls.
Everywhere the ocean’s devout widows.
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