Elizabeth Bradfield

First Love

Today, adjusting my jacket
in strong wind, I look down
to the hem, remember the neat
way she’d pull up the bottom
zipper—quick, decisive—to open
a gap for her hips.  Who are we,

those many years ago,
to our current selves?  Twice
a decade, we meet for tea, polite
about the others we’ve gone on
to love.  Her small hands.  How

they seemed capable of almost
anything: thumb nudging a throttle
just enough to come alongside
a dock;  what we did below
decks and in the gear locker,

the smell of burned
nylon from the line cutter, that
thin, heated blade that separated
strands and cauterized them
so they wouldn’t fray, all
around us, everything
I wanted to be, awakening.

Mandatory Safety Drill: Abandon Ship
                    for Arctic Explorer Donald B. MacMillan

Each trip, the abandon ship drill is conducted
first in Russian, the language of the chartered ship,
then in English. We make a joke of it, take

snapshots of ourselves in orange horse collars
as the chief safety officer drones through a bullhorn. 
At the life boat, we pretend to imagine it lowering,

us all getting on. I eye them.  Who would sing
to keep up morale, who shove, sag or need lifting?
An iceberg to port does not bring Titanic to mind.

It’s my job to lay out the reassuring essentials:
EPIRB, water, fishing hook, flares. I’ve not seen
much compared to some, but I’ve seen lightning

hit a mast, green water over the bow, portholes
blown.  And, over beers, heard worse. Listening,
a dark corner of my mind gets lit, remembering….

Just out of college, deckhand on a tour boat in Alaska.
2 am, uncharted rock. Nothing happened fast,
but we were stuck, it was dark, and the tide

was dropping.  We heaved the life boats
from the top deck, yanked a cord to make
their orange tents pop and fill, lowered

tenders, brought people to the fantail.  They had
on jackets and pajamas, carried medicine
in plastic bags.  Some we sent back

to leave behind “extra” luggage. Some
we had to hoist by the armpits. One woman’s
sweatpants caught on the raft’s lip. Pulled down. Pink

nylon briefs.  Coats on hooks in the companionway
hung out from the bulkhead. 25?  30? What was
the angle? It felt like 45 from vertical.  I said

I wanted to double check below.
The bos’n told me to be quick about it.
I snuck to my bunk. Not the camera, not

letters, not money. I double-bagged
my notebook of poems, stuffed it down
the front of my pants.  Then went back and kept on. 

We had to rig a sketchy ladder for the last few
to get down into the life raft, and I couldn’t really
bend to help. I don’t think anyone noticed.

Soon, the tenders towed them out to meet
a ferry, and it was just me, the chief mate,
an engineer, and another deckhand.

Even the generator was, for once, silent.
The chief mate squatted and smoked. 
Her hair gleamed in the trouble light. 

We listened to the tide. Some of these
details are wrong.  No one was hurt.  The next day
two bruises, blackberry-sized, surfaced

on my upper thighs from notebook corners
digging in. I shouldn’t have gone down for it. 
I knew that even then.  If the boat heeled

further, if something fell and I was pinned,
if someone had to come down for me….
Mac, I’ve read about the time you grounded

out and careened until the mast snapped,
the doubtful seas you chose to cross
with a boatful of boys, moments driven

by something other than prudence.
When did you first learn the scope
of your dangerous selfishness?


From old French, eschine, a blend of Latin’s ‘spina’ (spine) and a Germanic word meaning ‘narrow piece’; Nautical: angle where the bottom of the boat meets the side.

She has a hard chine
who said it?  A hard chine. A strong
spine. Say it nodding, wise—
pitch lowered by bruised
memory.  Mac, you wanted no chine
on the Bowdoin.  A curved hull
to follow the globe’s curve
north, to slide up easy onto ice
when it gripped. Can we slide
so easy?  Can we? I like it
when the edge of things
is clear.  Like to know when
I’m deadrise, when freeboard. 
If a boat tips easily, we say
she’s tender. Responsive and quick-
turning at weight-shift yet also
quicker to capsize.  In heavy seas,
a hard chine has an edge to push
against, a way to recover.

Bow Sprit

Spritless, our boats, Mac.  No
finger pointing out over our waves,
no figure below, watching the course
bare-breasted and terrifying.  Not
for us.  Just the stem,
cutting water.
                          I’d have taken
any craft north that first time, no matter
the omens or lack of charms.  I was the sprit’s
spirit over waves.  Over ice.  Go & go
& go.  The old word’s spreat,

a sprout, shoot, branch.  We push
through anything, weeds that we are.
Grasses thrust up through parking lot
pavement, vines twisted through
windows. Wanted or not.
                                                  Spreat became
spike or spear.  We can’t unlink
from violence, I know.  We push
through what was whole: air,
wave, ice, world all uninvited.

Elizabeth Bradfield

Elizabeth Bradfield’s most recent books are Toward Antarctica and Theorem. She is co-editor of Cascadia Field Guide: Art, Ecology, Poetry and Broadsided Press: Fifteen Years of Poetic/Artistic Collaboration. Her work has appeared in Atlantic Monthly, The Sun, Orion, and her honors include the Audre Lorde Prize and a Stegner Fellowship. Liz lives on Cape Cod, works as a naturalist, runs Broadsided Press, and teaches at Brandeis University. www.ebradfield.com