Peter Chapman Poetry

The Muse of Yards

Living in a boatyard has a sweet ingenuity. The old roses and early plants conjure scent. The boys have been going around rolling paint on, getting things to work again.

I learned to sail off a small beach in the orchard region of upstate New York. The beach was inside an old submerged jetty, in a small town about halfway between Rochester and Sodus Point, where the poet John Ashbery was born. When I found out our man of obtuse letters was born near where I got into boats, it made me feel more possible.

The land for our incipient yacht club was donated by a prosperous farmer named Fred Cornwall, and it was the intimation of loneliness, idle imagination and standing that showed me how useful smiling might be.

Later, after living near the Vermont border for a decade, I moved to an island in Maine then left for South America on a sailboat a Dutch merchant had bought from a famous builder. He'd been urged to buy the yacht by his physician son, an avid racer, who died a year after we delivered the boat. I don't know how that ended, but it was a beautiful sailboat, and I remember the oddness of loading water into her from a rainbarrel hauled by an old mule owned by Henry Clay, who we were told to find in Cockburn Harbor, in the Turks and Caicos, where we lay against a crumbling quay with engine trouble. We got parts from Maine and resumed our passage, taking a conch diver to replace a sick crew and help steer us down the Caribbean.

A short walk out of town were the abandoned salt flats, where salt had once been processed from seawater. It was very hot and I could hear birds that day. The heat was dry and tight, and wavered in the cracked paint of the old sheds. It felt like total disappearance.

Boatyards are fine places, but it's the idea of making a good repair that sustains everything. Everyone I've met who makes his living in a boatyard is a philosopher. Take your time, do it right, waste not. A job is approached with a bit of scratching and parabolizing. When a good effect can be had with string and spit, why get fancy? Making a lasting repair matters, and there are days when I'm sitting on my boat, not doing much of anything, that this fusion of fixing things feels vagrant, rare to this place. A good repair is made by living and learning, and a boatyard, with its corps of alternative troops, can get your boat floating again at the going rate.

Living here feels good. When I write a poem, there's a fix. In the dock of my head, with the osprey and herons and gulls and turtles and watersnakes and vultures and black and grey squirrels, the sunsets and rainy days, below cloudy airplane noise, the horn of a yacht leaving its slip, the poems arrive slowly, bound to remnants of this or that. The work orders come from humor or angst. I'm put to something without the deadlines of customer or boss, or having, really, to know much about what I'm doing.

So that's it, a state of fixedness, moments between repairs, a longing, I suppose, for the kindness of a brief explanation, a lift like the wind puckering out a sail, no reason to be anywhere but here, in the boatyard, with this stuff in my head nobody knows how to fix.