New Bedford

You don’t disembark here, this is a place
of departure, of contracts of passage.
There’s no beauty in the toggle harpoon
and the smog of the candle factory.
But I arrive because I care little for wharves
that are silent at dawn. I want to know
where death washed up when he could no longer
leap the Nantucket sandbar, pursuing
whalers fresh from the bethel, their preacher
hats jaunty for the dock-side photograph.

Though they float three-deep, the daily swinging
of a bridge truss spills out the mourning fleet.
And while we wait for candy canes to rise,
the Acushnet still creeps beneath our feet,
upon which rust and steel claim right of way
ahead of my price-tagged Moby Dick,
and my determined stride towards cobblestones
I was told to heave to in Plymouth.
(Because when they gorge upon a lobster
Even the grottiest cities wear bibs).

At the museum we are informed that
before generators spun, it was whales
turning at the side of the New Beige fleet
that lit the world’s passage out of darkness.
Later, in conversation over a nip of oil
a local completes my education:
he explains that they’re barely more than infants,
that out beyond the sea-wall they’ve only
been counting the hours for a short while,
something I mastered when I still had gills.

On the banks of the river the smokestack
rises like an arm poised to stick iron.
Though oil-stilled and tidally dammed,
the Acushnet still sleeps around our feet,
while its last fishy inhabitant
shed its gills in 1841
and wriggled to a seamen’s boarding house,
where the roof beams made him feel like Jonah,
and writing about his evolution
was the only plausible deliverance.

Philip Walford lives in London. More of his work can be found at

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