- 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.