Two Poems – by Kenneth Chamlee


Albert Bierstadt comes to America

We sailed on Hope, father said, a ship
bound from Rotterdam to New Bedford
for his cooper’s trade. I was but two
and don’t remember, but I grew up
smelling pitch and fish, a sharpened stave
my harpoon, stabbing it deep
in the hump of a grassy dune, then
sat and sand-traced the maze of rigging
on an anchored brig. From our roof I
watched whalers and merchants come and go,
black masts with canvas white as cloudbanks.

In the shop I’d watch my father shape
the barrel staves, pulling the drawknife
over and over, a beckoning,
then magic as he set the first hoop.
I’d guess what each barrel might contain—
beer, potatoes, dried beef outward bound,
salted cod or sperm oil coming home.
He built round pockets of harbor air
and smoothed them, certain and watchful,
while I walked my fingers down my sides
counting my ribs, wanting to be filled.

Boats Ashore at Sunset

Fishermen have turned the tall fins of their sails
toward home. Some row the last few waves to shore
as a line of men leans into the weight of today’s catch,
heaving the nets home with a call-and-pull.

It looks as though they have pulled the wrinkles
out of the sea, straining backwards as
the last wave tucks and flattens to the beach.
Every night they pull the boats ashore, pull down
the twilight scrim, pull shadowed mountains
into the drowse of the sea.

They have pulled the wind ashore too,
where it rests wrapped in the sails till tomorrow,
some of it taut to the mast, some of it
folded below the thwarts where it
breathes softly, rocking the boats.


Note: This selection is from a work in progress, a poetic biography of Albert Bierstadt, 19th century landscape painter of the American west. He immigrated to the U.S. with his parents when he was two, apprenticed in Europe as a young man, and later established himself with the Hudson River artists of New England. Starting in the late 1850s, Bierstadt made several extensive tours of the west where he found the subject matter that defined his career. He lived a life vacillating between grandeur and bankruptcy due to the changing critical climate in the last half of the century. The second poem is in ekphrasis mode, a rendering of a painting with the same title.


Kenneth Chamlee is the I. B. Seese Distinguished Professor of English at Brevard College in North Carolina. His poems have appeared in The Asheville Poetry Review, The Cumberland Poetry Review, The Greensboro Review and many others. He won the GSU Review (Georgia State University) National Writing Award in Poetry, ByLine Magazine’s National Poetry Chapbook Competition (Absolute Faith), and the Longleaf Press Poetry Chapbook Competition (Logic of the Lost). In 2004 he won the Word Journal Poetry Prize, and his poems have appeared in five editions of Kakalak: An Anthology of Carolina Poets. Ken is the director of the Looking Glass Rock Writers’ Conference held annually at Brevard College.