Blessing the Boats at St. Mary’s

A replica of the Dove, which brought settlers to Maryland

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.

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  1. Posted August 7, 2009 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Maybe Peabody needs more poetry. Or maybe not enough time has passed and someday I will have similar nostalgic feelings for Peabody as I do for St. Mary’s. Despite the problems I encountered at St. Mary’s, I still have a fondness for the college and the area. I remember reading this poem during one of the events surrounding my graduation, and it is one more way in which I feel tied to the campus community as an alumni.

    My relationship with Peabody is more troubled. You’d think that with all the emotions on display in the music we made there, and all the poetry in the form of lyrics and libretti I’d have something more positive to hold onto. But instead, aside from my performances, some of which I do cherish, my most memorable poetic experience was singing the National Anthem at graduation. Perhaps I am addicted to the ceremony of commencement.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted August 7, 2009 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    It’s funny how we associate the arts with the highest human striving but artists themselves , when they’re just people, can be like the rest of the sad mess of humanity. I never feel as noble as when I’m reading a great novel (say, Anna Karenina) or listening to a symphony–but then, when I return to the everyday world, I have to work hard to live up to this vision. It reminds me of the feuding families in Huckleberry Finn–on Sunday, when they’re all in church, they are filled with brotherly love, but then on Monday they’re back to killing each other again. Institutions of higher learning and conservatories have a history of not living up to the ideals they aspire to. We need to call them out when they fall short.

    Grad schools are particularly notorious, maybe because the faculty are so career oriented (as opposed to student oriented). I know many people, in addition to Betsy, who have warm feelings towards their undergraduate college but feel cold about their graduate education. Maybe undergraduate schools are a nurturing mother, an alma mater, whereas grad schools are a boot camp father (to invoke stereotyped gender images).

5 Trackbacks

  1. By The Light that Came from Lucille Clifton on February 15, 2010 at 5:54 am

    […] St. Mary’s College of Maryland from 1991 to 2007.  (I have written about her previously here and here.)  I can’t say that I was intimate with her.  Not many people were.  But I talked with her […]

  2. By Children Commence, Parents Let Go on May 17, 2010 at 5:52 am

    […] I have written previously about this poem and its place in our Commencement. But I have something new to report.  Two weeks ago my wife and I sailed on the replica of one of the boats referred to in the poem to honor the 10-year anniversary of the death of our son Justin. […]

  3. By What Does a True Arab Do Now? on October 4, 2011 at 5:20 am

    […] she talked of the importance of Lucille’s poem “The Blessing the Boats (at St. Mary’s),” which I have written about in the past.  “It is so important,” she said quoting the poem, “to sail beyond the face of fear.” She […]

  4. By The Jordan River Continues to Inspire on November 3, 2014 at 10:43 am

    […] taking risks, but when joined to the freedom journey, it takes on special resonance. (You can go here to read the poem and my account of how we use it in our commencement ceremonies to send our […]

  5. […] Last week’s trivia stumped the crowd. Lucille Clifton was an emeritus professor at St. Mary’s College in St. Mary’s County. She wrote the poem blessing the boats which was later inscribed on the wall of the St. Mary’s College campus center. […]


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