Friday, December 9, 2011



In the year 1900, Chicago was the city with the second highest number of Swedes after Stockholm, the capital of Sweden.~wikipedia

A hundred years ago
he stands on the quay
small in his winter clothes
the boy bruised with
old men’s hopes, starved on
uncles’ dreams, ragdoll boy
who must change everything
blinking into wind freshened
by an icemelt ocean

squinting at tomorrow.
He's tumbled forward,
cheap goods into steerage,
clutching everything there is,
a ticket, his other shirt, a bar of soap;
for wrap a blanket of fog,
for comfort, wet cheeks and his
mother's goodbye on
a rough linen square, tucked in

yesterday morning’s pocket,
too young to know every departure
wears an arrival under it’s coat.
He thought he’d had 
a bellyfull of tongues, 
mumbles of better life,
nonsense new beginnings
until they gave him 
the silence of that deep

blue voicelessness clearer
than any words, whispering
darkness come dripping
by the board bed to
read him to sleep with
leviathan’s salt breath
and disperse the makeshift
ectoplasmic home exhaled
by heart's hard wish.

All his life to come
he would hate the water
that gave the ship its wings, the
feel of slick shoes, 
cheeks wet with tears
long goodbyes and lying
promises blown on white steam from
rough pitcoal to where I stand now,
cheeks wet from my own departures

the only difference between us 
that I am naked 
under my coat.

December 2011
This poem is for my grandfather Ragnar Carlson, who in the early 1900's made the long sea journey to New York City and then by rail to Chicago, from Gothenburg, Sweden, alone at the age of eight. Like many immigrants at that time, he traveled steerage, which was the cheapest accommodation. Below you can see a picture of him and his dog taken a few years after his arrival.

Posted for Real Toads
My dear friend, guide and support through the wilds of the poetry blogosphere, Fireblossom of Shay's Word Garden, is hosting a prompt today at Real Toads on arrivals and departures. Sorry not to use one of your very cool photos, Shay, but this one has been in the works a long time and I'd already illustrated it.

Also posted for  Meeting the Bar:Evoking Emotion  at dVersePoets Pub
Note: I don't do critique, and by participating in this prompt, I am not asking for it, just thought the poem fit the theme. 

Header image: Emigrants on the Wilson Line steamship Ariosto in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Old postcard 
Footer image1: SS Hibernia, Anchor Line, 1868 Nov. 24, foundered 700 miles from the Irish coast as a result of accident to propeller shaft, 78 lives lost
Old engraving Copyright © 2011 Heritage-Ships.
Footer image2: Ragnar & Dog, circa 1920  
Copyright Verse Escape, 2012


  1. This sent shivers down my spine and goosebumps along my arms: the pain and uncertainty of that little boy rose up the back of my throat. (My god - 8 years old!)
    I think the fourth stanza is a total masterpiece, and loved the way your turned the centuries back to you, his grand-daughter.
    This I will take with me:
    "every departure
    wears an arrival under it’s coat"

  2. It would've needed some guts to do so.such a man is worth more poems than one.moving poem and even more moving actual parents know something of being immigrants and you've conveyed the anxieties very effectively.

  3. The immigrant song is baritoned into so many of our songs, down the trail of generations and their restless, westward motion. And how that weaves into our psyche is strange, isn't it, our parents passing on this or that take on the relocation - as damage, hope, homesickness. It tides in the resonant bone beneath our ear ... and yes, under every departure there's an arrival, the door of farewells become some form of welcome, for better and ill. Terror of water's here and it does make me wonder how safe and dry you feel, living as far away from the ocean as one can in the country, whether by choice or accident. My Irish ancestor John came over on the Sea Sprite from Cork Harbor Ireland in 1778; his voyage must have been enthralling where your paterfamilias found the passage appalling, for this great-great grandson loved the flash of Moby's flukes in stanza 4. - Brendan

  4. Brilliantly written.

    I'm with Kerry, the fourth stanza is the heart of it. I too will take away:
    "too young to know every departure
    wears an arrival under it’s coat."
    but also:
    "the only difference between us
    that I am naked
    under my coat."

  5. wow hedge this is some very fine story telling, well crafted...each departure wears an arrival under its coat is great wisdom and sets up your close well which caught me off a bit and i went back to read again...very nice...

  6. What a scary journey this must have been. I'm glad you told the story of it here.

  7. Thanks all. He and his journey--and my grandmother made a similar one, though she was in her teens and had her sisters along--are much in my thoughts lately, perhaps because it's comforting to know what people are capable of. I imagined much of this, as he was not a talkative man, but I do know he hated water; he often took us grandkids down to the beach, but always sat in the shade as far from the water as he could get and never learned how to swim. He said after the lesson he got as a child, he never wanted to(he was thrown into the water by his father and told to swim out. Apparently he almost drowned.)It was hard times, very different times back then.

    @ Abin, Brian, Tug, Kerry, many thanks.

    @Hannah; thanks for the visit, and the kind comment.

    @B: Thanks for reading about what have to be very alien emotions. I have no fear of the water per se myself--walking by Lake Michigan was a soul-saving contact with the natural world for me growing up. The ocean I'm a bit intimidated by, I admit but I do love to swim in it. Perhaps the forest and mountains and flowers *are* a bit more in my comfort zone than the vasty deep, though. The thought of being on a steamship out of sight of land crossing thousands of miles of water terrifies me.

  8. oh i like it..everything...but the ending is extra gorgeous
    also loved the leviathan’s salt breath...the blue voicelessness... great imagery as always hedge and great story telling

  9. Wow, an amazing story and a fantastically wonderfully written poem. Eight years old. What a harsh world it was for children then. Great writing, Hedge. Fascinating story.

  10. Hi Hedge, this is lovely and believe it or not, I have a Swedish grandfather from Goteburg. I also have another one from Skane.

    Well, they are both dead, but you know.

    I especially like the disdaining of all the wetness thereafter. K.

  11. Ahh... what a voyage for such a young boy, but a legacy for his family. Thanks for sharing the picture, too.

  12. @Karin: With that spelling of your first name and Gustafson for a last, why am I not surprised? Glad you dropped by to get a little vicarious wetness. I used the English spelling of Göteborg, but I well remember that lilting Swedish accent in my grandparent's voices, talking about 'the Old Country.'

  13. Your words are ... well, I see you molding in wax your grandfather's bust. Hands filled with such love and admiration and then these words somehow ... such beautiful words translate through the sculpture into words. This is such a beautiful piece of loving history. I really enjoyed this poem.

  14. What a beautiful story of pain and courage. How proud you must be that you came from such lineage.

  15. Because this boy was only eight and alone and bruised with old men's hopes, it seems even more poignant. And your reference to lying promises seemed ominous, made me shiver for him. Astounding when you think of what our ancestors went through and how that has influenced us, maybe even made it possible for us to be naked under our coats. Great poem and story.

  16. I simply cannot imagine making that journey as an adult, let alone at age eight. How frightening and difficult that must have been! And his mother must have been convinced to a certainty that she was sending him to a better life, or how could she ever see her son off like that? I am stunned by the very notion.

    You have evoked so much here...his loneliness, and the telling detail of how he disliked ship travel ever after. Wonderful stuff, my friend, made all the more poignant by knowing that this is your own family history. Thank you so much for participating in my first FF, and for gracing it, and us, with this poem.

  17. I agree with Fireblossom, it must have been agony for the mother, too, and even though she must have believed she was sending him to a better life, she must also have felt her heart torn out of her chest at his departure.
    How wonderful that he managed to survive, and thrive, and leave descendants. He does look a brave young lad in the photo with his dog.

    Kay, Alberta, Canada
    An Unfittie’s Guide to Adventurous Travel

  18. What a feat, and what a poem to honor it. I too loved the phrase, 'the leviathan’s salt breath' and so many more.

  19. Thanks all. Your input is always appreciated. I enjoyed what I've read elsewhere, too.

    @FB: You know I had to try my best for your first prompt, even if it resulted in almost total baldness. I look forward to many more.

  20. Hedgewitch, an amazing poem. I had not realized that 100 years ago Chicago had such a high percentage of Swedes. I live near Milwaukee which, of course, ahd such a high percentage of Germans. Your poem shared the immigrant story very strongly, no matter what nationality. A strong write.

  21. At the age of 8, and travelling steerage? The picture sure depicts a very confident little boy. You have special strong blood running in your veins, Joy!


  22. Gorgeous work, Hedge. I've always thought that making the crossing in steerage was probably very, very close to hell.

  23. This is so well-told, Joy Ann. You allowed me to experience the feelings your grandfather must have felt, and to re-live similar experiences from my own life...going to places where I know no one, once in a different country. The ending added a powerful punch to the whole narrative. Beautiful.

  24. A fascinating read not only for how you flawlessly told/shaped this, but to imagine the sheer determination of our kin to make it to America. The pic on the side is fabulous! It so adds a bit of haunt and mystery to the image your words conjure...wondering, what must this young boy's eyes had seen during such a journey. A wonderful bit of storytelling in poem form, HW!

    (sidebar...just saw blurb a bit ago on FB, a proposal to make Chi town a State...oy!)

  25. Fascinating story beautifully told. A salty tale indeed.

  26. This the most moving one I've read so far. Full of genuine feeling and about something with enough weight to carry it. Just what a poem should be. Congrats.

  27. My heart took your grandfather right in when I saw the picture last week. And now I am in love with this beautiful and powerful poem you wrote about him. My mind is reeling thinking of him making the voyage at age 8. My grandfather and grandmother each came from Finland as late teens, and I know that my grandmother traveled with at least one sister. I wish I knew the story about my grandfather's passage, but as he worked in the shipyards in Duluth his entire life I guess he didn't have anything against the water.

    I can imagine the wash of emotion you had when this masterpiece was finished. I would encourage you to help it find its way to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, and also

  28. I've spent a most delightful morning catching up on your posts ... beginning with Compression and ending with Immigrant ... all I can utter is wow, your talent is something else. All of it good!

  29. The texture images in this poem are so strong - the ragdoll, the fog blanket, the rough linens and slick shoes - all building brilliantly toward your final stanza.

  30. I am late but I love your story of your grandfather's journey, fears and hopes. You held your emotions back but I can feel its force and brave voice ~

    The contrasting ending lines are neat too ~

  31. what a terrific tribute. my favorite lines: blue voicelessness clearer and promises blown on white steam.

  32. very powerfully written...thank you for sharing, sounds so much like the stories I heard from my own grandparents.


"We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." ~William Butler Yeats

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