And the Ocean, Always the Ocean
Stand here and there, old Vineyard homes,
All wrapped in deep content.
Emma Mayhew Whiting
They’re painting all the houses white in Edgartown,
capping flat pickets to fences around resplendent lawns,
cut on a diagonal. The parade is just around the corner.
Sit at the spinning wheel in the keeping room, scrimshaw
on the mantel. The crane swings in the high fireplace
and the streets are filled with shouts for the whaling ships—
Apollo in 1816, next the Loan, and then, really, the Hope;
prosperous worshippers at the Whaling Church, six-year old
Laura Jernegan on a three-year voyage with her captain father.
Melville-based Tashtego on harpooners from Gay Head, but
Gayheader Amos Smalley actually brought in a white whale.
Moshup changed the footprint of the land, now Aquinnah,
Wampanoag for “end of the island.” Here the herring run,
cranberries are collected. The lighthouse once a Fresnel lens,
with a thousand-and-three prisms over luminous water
and staggered colors of the clay cliffs — here the majesty
of the red-tailed hawk and the ancient grounds for deer,
the language of the ancestors speaking centuries.
In Chilmark, everyone learns to sign, the daily commerce
of community. At the brickyard, they’re drying bricks; grinding
clay to a fine powder for oilcloth paint. Sheep in the fields
and swordfish on slippery decks. Wooden decoys on ponds
and stone walls dipping with the land. They’re raising
the Third Meeting House with chisels & slicks. Ospreys
at Lucy Vincent. Thomas Hart Benton is painting Josie West.
Here’s the Quitsa Strider and Benjamin Mayhew’s boat;
sunset and cherrystones, ocean expanse at the Allen Farm.
Holmes Hole, Tisbury, the bright sounds of enterprise,
and The Sound, once the second busiest waterway
in the world, sailors ashore at the Seaman’s Bethel,
now sailboats in the safe harbor, The Gale of 1898
just a memory, with writers in the gracious houses
on Main St., rebuilt after the Great Fire burned downtown
from the harness factory to The Mansion House. Here’s
the first Uncatena steaming towards the dock — still
a destination: from the Marine Hospital to Owen Park.
West to West Tisbury, the Athens of the Island,
seven pianos on Music Street after George Smith
bought one for his daughter, couples strolling
on a Sunday afternoon listening to Brahms and Bach.
To The Fair, with ribbons won for baking apple cobbler,
the Ferris Wheel high above the Grange and Ag halls.
Tiasquam to the ocean, to Tisbury Great and oysters
for the taking, ice-cutting in Ice House Pond — town
where Joshua Slocum retired, dancers at the Gallery.
Oak Bluffs to Cottage City then back again, Dorothy West
is writing “Cottagers Corner.” Town of fireworks and fests . . .
and camping Methodists. Gingerbread scrolls of cresting waves
and pale flowers — it’s Illumination Night, pastel lanterns
and paddle wheel steamers. Roller skaters by the Sea View,
and Ulysses S. Grant at the Tabernacle atoning for his sins.
Tourists are buying taffy at Darling’s Popcorn Store, walking
to the Flying Horses carousel, hand-carved heads looking
past Circuit Ave. to Ocean Park, the Inkwell and Farm Pond.
The towns are separate,… but separate. Equal,…
but unmistakable, the quiet push of most action,
the paths of least time, the insistence on continuity,
finding the rhythm of ourselves on a land on loan.
Donations pour in: a hospital, the airport expands.
They’re putting up a barn, moving a house, opening
a cut. And always the lure of fishing, scallops from
the ponds, schooners in the harbor, oil for lanterns
and red clay for bowls, shipyards filled with rigging.
The farmers with warm soil in their hands, soul
of the hills we travel, bone and shell purified, humus
on leek roots, G clefs at the top of garlic shoots.
And out on the water, striper, blues, and lobster,
in the haze of baked salt air, slash of a remote cloud
as small stones and sea glass rattle and recede.
To the cedars on the hill, the waves in threes,
to the harbors and jetties and shipwrecks,
to the shingled Capes and brick foundations,
we’ve weathered Grey’s Raid and hurricanes,
herring scales to pearls — our presence is the past.
This poem was written for The Evening of Discovery, the annual fundraiser for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, held on July 14.