I know the last few posts have been tough—race is never easy to talk about, even when doing so makes us feel better than trying to ignore it. To end the week on a lighter note, I feature a poem of grace. It is by Lucille Clifton, St. Mary’s emeritus professor and author of the angry poem I discussed yesterday. The poem captures my aspirations as a father, as a teacher, and as a member of the St. Mary’s College community. Here it is:
blessing the boats (at st. mary’s)
may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that
The title refers to the Blessing of the Fleet that occurs every October at St. Clement’s Island. It commemorates the blessing of the boats in England that were carrying the first English settlers to Maryland in 1633. They landed at St. Clement’s five months later.
At St. Mary’s College of Maryland, however, we take the poem to refer to us. After all, we are a campus defined by our waterfront on the St. Mary’s River. There are almost always boats on the river and we have one of the top sailing teams in the country. This poem is inscribed on the wall of our campus center so that students will see it on their way to the dining hall.
In this way, the poem serves to put a frame around the St. Mary’s educational experience. For it is not, of course, about boats. It is about people venturing into the unknown and about other people, those who love them, letting them go. The adventurers may be fearful and they may be passing beyond the lip of our understanding. But they can rest assured that they will have the wind of love—of their parents, teachers, and friends—supporting them. Those who are waving from the shore ask only for a momentary kiss and then accept that our children and students will be focused on the horizon and on the “water/ water waving forever.”
I love the image of the wind, a divine spirit that propels and that will be with them always. I also enjoy Lucille’s word play in “love your back.” The “your” sounds like a dialectical “you,” pointing to confidence that love will remain even when the one who loves is absent. But it also functions as a possessive pronoun—you can go forth confident because we have your back.
I have to express a little dissatisfaction with the last line and wish that someone would reassure me on it. I know that “this” and “that” must remain fairly open to allow each of us to pour our own individual stories into the words. But I still wish Lucille had come up with a more concrete image, a metaphorical expression of the same idea. It feels to me as a flaw in an almost perfect poem. But I’m open to other readers’ reactions.
The poem is sometimes read at commencements, most recently by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a member of our Board of Trustees. Our ceremony is set up in a way that conforms with the idea in the poem. When our students first come to St. Mary’s, we greet them in a convocation where they have their backs to the St. Mary’s River. Then the chairs are turned around during the graduation ceremonies, and the students can see the river beyond the speakers’ platform.
This is not the only Lucille poem that helps define our space and our experiences, incidentally. Following 9-11, Lucille spent a week writing a series of reflective poems, one on each of the seven days following the attacks. A student had the idea of stationing the poems around the tidewater pond within our campus, and you can stroll around and reach them in sequence. I will write on them in a future post.