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  • By Johnny Payne

Trois Matelots du Port de Brest

Three ships sailed on a sea’s soft swell,

a small sea, but one full of wrecks.

In those wrecks, drowned men, their spent bones

and from those bones, reefs, furred with moss.

By them swam fish, bright as deep sun shafts.

In those shafts, flecks of gold in drifts.

On the beach, sand cleaved in big drifts.

Their edges seemed to shrink and swell.

The dunes curved; sole things split by shafts

of light, as if they were old wrecks

all void of fish, flecks, reefs, or moss

but yes, filled with dead men’s spent bones.

Wind swept the sea, chilled men’s warm bones.

Most died. The ship was left to drift.

Planks cracked; each fresh corpse smelled like moss

and with its rot, the soft flesh swelled

the way oak trees do when ships wreck

until it shrank thin as a shaft.

The Lord’s wrath falls like a sharp shaft.

It fell on these men, cracked their bones

made of their minds a stark mad wreck

as all wits dulled, sheer gone to drift

and souls’ bluff pride, which had once swelled

turned as limp as long-ripped moss.

One such man once lay in soft moss

in the arms of a girl, his shaft

straight, that part of his young self swelled

apt to act, game, like his very bones.

He was left for long weeks to drift

far gone from his doomed ship’s harsh wreck.

From Port du Brest he left, not to wreck

but lie on his love as on moss.

She thinks of him some days, mind drifts

to how his face looked in a shaft

of sun, the thrill of his lean bones

and how, when near him, her heart swelled.

In that moss-clad wreck, one fish drifts

in shafts of light, next to nine bones

swelled, as if to come back to life.

Johnny Payne is Director MFA in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary's University in Los Angeles. He has published two previous volumes of poetry, as well as ten novels. In addition, he writes and direct plays in Los Angeles and elsewhere. His plays have been produced professionally and on university stages.

1 Comment

Cindy Erlandson
Cindy Erlandson
Jun 17, 2022

I was never very enamored of sestinas, until I read this one. It is so amazingly woven together!

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