Saturday, October 09, 2010

Tom Wisner, Bard of the Chesapeake

I have only just now learned that Tom Wisner, the Bard of the Chesapeake Bay has passed away. Daddy Art, that is to say, Captain Art Daniels delivered the eulogy.

It is always sad to see a piece of the Chesapeake's history and culture pass away, but I am sadder still that this is old news and I have only just now heard it. That's what comes of committing the disloyalty of spending my year on the Delaware side of the world, crewing the Kalmar Nyckel and her boat, the Little Key. I have never been homesick for any place in the world, but I am surely homesick for skipjacks. Finding out that I missed something important has made me miss the Chesapeake even more.

Tom used to go around to festivals on the Chesapeake Bay and I saw him perform a few years ago at the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum, if memory serves me correctly. I was also thinking I would see him again, because Erik Spangler is composing a 'Watershed Sound Poem' that includes some of my poetry from Heron Sea along with some of Tom's work and other local artists and sounds. Watershed Sound Poem has an estimated time of arrival next spring. I am hoping to be able to attend its performance, which will be even more poignant if it includes Tom's work.

In Japanese aesthetics there is a quality called 'aware', pronounced ah-wah-ray, which is translated as 'the pity of things,' or an awareness of the perishable of the world. I encountered this Japanese aesthetic principle as a teenager, thanks to the Japanese exchange student we had, and was immediately and deeply immersed in Japanophilia for several decades. 'Aware' impressed me deeply and has provided me with a melancholy but not depressing way to view the world and to prize its fragile beauty. It also introduced me to the classical tanka of the Kokinshu and Shinkokinshu eras -- when I was homeless, Carter's Traditional Japanese Poetry was one of the items I managed to retain possession of.

It was not until many years later that I wrote tanka and found in the 'aware' of Japan a way of viewing the world that was a perfect match for the fragile beauty of the Chesapeake. There is a numinous quality in both tanka and the Chesapeake, so it would not surprise me if some Japanese pilgrim erected a Shinto gate in the shallow waters of the bay. It would have to be painted blue if they did, because blue is the traditional color for offerings given to the god of the Chesapeake by the Indians who lived here. Boats are never painted blue here because if you do, the god of the Chesapeake will accept the gift and pull it under.

I am currently serving aboard a big blue ship, the Kalmar Nyckel, a reproduction of a 17th century vessel that was used to bring Swedish settlers to the Delaware Bay. When I have been aboard her going along the Chesapeake Bay, I often reflect on these matters, and I expect I will reflect again when she goes to the Chestertown Downrigging Weekend. Chestertown, Maryland, was the site of the Chestertown Tea Party during the American Revolution, and there is nothing more beautiful that a dozen or more historic and wooden ships and boats cozy together as October ends with a crazy Halloween party.

I keep
the ship's cat
at three am
on a Cape Cod night

I am glad to be home again.


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