Poetry 2011 / Volume 42

Writing Moby-Dick — Ann Struthers

The winter of 1851 was snug, tight,
snow heaving its waves over Massachusetts.
Melville awoke with a “sea-feeling…”
The frost on his windows left only
a small, clear glass in the middle.
It was like “a port-hole of a ship
in the Atlantic.”   He wrote, “My room
seems a ship’s cabin; & at nights
when I wake up & hear the wind shrieking,
I almost fancy there is too much sail
on the house.”

At Arrowhead, Melville was up at eight,
tramped to the barn and poured out bran
for the horses, their hot breath
warming its rafters.   His corn knife
sliced pumpkins for the cow.   She munched
them, contented as cream, drooling the seeds
and looking up at the sailor with great
South Seas eyes.   Augusta and Helen, his sisters
who were his copyists, served his breakfast
in the kitchen; then he clumped
up the back stairs to his cold study,
the desk before the windows looking out
over the double ridges of Mount Greylock.

He laid the fire, lifting recalcitrant logs
with a harpoon poker—below him the sounds
of the household chores, his four sisters,
his wife Elizabeth, his tyrannical mother,
their high collars buttoned under their proper chins.
The Tahitian flames in his fireplace danced,
and those other fires, melting down whale blubber,
flared, leaped, translated hell, and Melville
wrote steadily till 2:30.

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