Stranded In Alaska, 1889
–with a nod to Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise
by Nancy Anderson and Linda Ferber
At dawn the Tlingit canoes arrived
to fetch us from the grounded steamer.
Cold rain lashed and waves banged the dugouts
into the drum of the pitched hull, but
in the end all was saved but the ship.
We stood there in the mush and gravel
with our boots soaked and nowhere to go
but into the stinking cannery
and the Chinese huts greasy with smoke.
Five days I breathed chum and gagged chowder,
watched eagles fight above the fish-pens,
shrieking and stealing despite the rain.
In the factory Tlingit women
severed fins, heads, and tails in the blade
of a second; insides spilled and scales
gleamed like flakes of rainbow. Reeking vats
drove me out to my umbrella’s drip
and patter. I sketched dull scrapwood shacks
with tin roofs weighted by stones, plotted
islands no bigger than scuffs of moss.
The Ancon lay close to shore, her length
receding into fog. From the stern
I marked the fatal tilt of the stack
against the offset beam, the yellow
paddleboxes useless and absurd.
I came for a different Alaska,
one that would pay in grand commissions,
the one exalted in tourbooks—where
the captain scouts for orca and names
the passing glaciers. I had wanted
to see their palatial facades crack
and hear them plunge among littered floes
with crushing surge, to see boreal
forests deploying from the coasts for
mile upon impenetrable mile
sweeping up to mountains and ranges
so august the Sierras seem mocked
as pencil stubs.
But there was only
drench and drab skies, nothing that would pay,
nothing that would pique a nation so
inured to majesty they reject
their own. As I claimed the derelict’s
foreshortened view, a Chinese man toiled
his way to my stump. Grinning wide and
jabbering, he raised a pot of tea
and a chipped bowl of pink fish and rice.
Wreck Of The “Ancon” In Loring Bay, Alaska
–after the painting by Albert Bierstadt
A hawser cast too early, slack fire
in the boiler—and all is riven.
Ebb tide pulls and the Ancon
breaks her keel on a hidden reef, listing
so steeply her starboard sidewheel
is nearly dry, shrugged like a shoulder
to the chill gray sameness of sea and fog.
Fast between two worlds of hope
she leans toward a lightening sky
and the headland she will never round,
yet so close to shore a loud hail
should right her. Knifing out from dark bushes,
a fallen trunk and shoreline merge
to suggest a prow, ghost of a ruined hull
and a long forgotten ore.
Kenneth Chamlee lives in the mountains of western North Carolina. His poems have appeared in The North Carolina Literary Review, Worcester Review, Naugatuck River Review, and many others. Ken has written A Measureless Land, a poetic biography of 19th century American landscape painter Albert Bierstadt, and a new collection of his poems, If Not These Things, is forthcoming from Kelsay Books in 2022. Check him out at www.kennethchamlee.com.
Links to painting: https://collections.mfa.org/objects/33120/wreck-of-the-ancon-in-loring-bay-alaska;jsessionid=A2FDAAA23C38D39525E067B650E7B7AE