Jan 18 Arna Bontemp: Nocturne of the Wharves

Arna Bontemps is from Louisiana from a Creole family (I wonder if this is where the town in “True Blood” got its name?). He later attended Pacific Union College in California, then went on to teach in New York at the Harlem Academy. He wrote several books and a play. His book the Story of the Negro won a Jane Adams Children’s Book Award and a Newbery Honor. He was a part of the Harlem Renaissance and poets.org says that “his work as a librarian and historian point to him as a great chronicler and a preserver of the documents of black cultural heritage.”

Nocturne of the Wharves

by Arna Bontemp

All night they whine upon their ropes and boom
against the dock with helpless prows:
these little ships that are too worn for sailing
front the wharf but do not rest at all.
Tugging at the dim gray wharf they think
no doubt of China and of bright Bombay,
and they remember islands of the East,
Formosa and the mountains of Japan.
They think of cities ruined by the sea
and they are restless, sleeping at the wharf.

Tugging at the dim gray wharf they think
no less of Africa. An east wind blows
and salt spray sweeps the unattended decks.
Shouts of dead men break upon the night.
The captain calls his crew and they respond–
the little ships are dreaming–land is near.
But mist comes up to dim the copper coast,
mist dissembles images of the trees.
The captain and his men alike are lost
and their shouts go down in the rising sound of waves.

Ah little ships, I know your weariness!
I know the sea-green shadows of your dream.
For I have loved the cities of the sea,
and desolations of the old days I
have loved: I was a wanderer like you
and I have broken down before the wind.

I’m trying to go back to my original premise and take from the textbook some more. When last I left it, it was talking about tone, so I’ll speak on tone some more and the word choices that this poet has made, though they’re more my interpretation of the poem than anything else.

I love this poem, because it is very evocative of the sea: its wildness, how stormy it becomes, it’s “sea-green shadows of you dream” (which paints a picture of the stormy sea for me) and how it is a great and pervasive force that is able to batter at a person constantly and without rest. Some might compare this to, oh, say, Society (also a large and pervasive force that can batter at you constantly) and how it is difficult for the individual to fight against its push and its pull and its battering and torments, at a certain point the individual becomes tired and “broken down before the wind” after all the ocean is powerful enough to wear down entire cities. It’s nice to wax philosophically about the power of the individual, but is it a realistic portrait of the human dynamic?

The individual can be likened to the boats docked in the harbor too worn for sailing, but dreaming of the far ports in Bombay and the adventures they could have.



About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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