Reading: James McMichael – The Admiral Benbow

American poet James McMichael (1939) is the author of multiple collections of poetry and receiver of many awards, as you might expect. I found out about him through the book Poetry for Dummies.

I read a poem about the ghost of a ship:

The Admiral Benbow
The aisles are filled with trees,
The tables with lawns and hedgerows.

Canisters are open on the lawns
And over the grounds they issue
Piece by piece their holdings:

Statuary, sundials,
Hedgerows and lawns, walks,

Trees where the mosses,
The gentian and wild iris

Climb into the light and stare out
From the other side of the light,

Stare back at the grounds,
At the emerald,
Blue and violet canisters.

The ship’s aisles are filled with trees, the tables with lawns and hedgerows. People have planted their gardens in the remains of the vessel. The heart of the poem is the canisters “issuing” their contents and the surprising turn that these holdings are both nautical objects (sundial) and elements of the garden.

The canisters were part of the ship’s original cargo in my reading. They are now understood at that which gives the garden its structure (hedgerows) and also its ability to outgrow the story of the ship: mosses, wild iris. The wreckage gives rise to something that can reach “the other side of the light” and see details of its origin.

In the final stanza, the canisters are emerald, blue and violet. This observation requires careful distinction. We can see the nature of our origin clearer when we look from afar: they can be likened to canisters in every shade of blue, in the hull of a shipwrecked navy ship.

There have been three HMS Benbows in the Royal Navy, named after Admiral John Benbow.

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