Archival Features, Poems

The Shepherd of Tourists on a $20 Sunset Cruise Speaks

For the third time today, twelve miles out and back
to the whales, my voice through the PA flat as last night’s
tonic. Through my patter of ecology and evolution,
I’m thinking, What can I say that will matter beyond this,
your annual ten paid days?
Then the twin engines downroar
to slow ahead, terns chirr the air, and a geyser of breath rises
as if on cue. “Just ahead at one o’clock,” I say from the bridge,
“a logging humpback.” The railings crowd. Cameras rise.
Empathy and longing fog the air, thick as diesel exhaust.
I can smell the long dive on the breath of the whale, fishy
and pungent. To the tide of imprecise awe, I say, “Whales
don’t sleep like us. They rest one half of their brains at a time.”

Then the whale dives, flukes glinting. Ashore,
the first seatings are done with their salads, barbacks
have filled sinks with ice, the town is primping its diversions
for the taffy-scented night. After the decks are scrubbed
and the candy racks stocked, I, too, will disembark,
not really thinking of whales, but full of what I never say:
my own predictable and deep contentment
in their brief time at surface, the shine of thick nares
pulling open, pulling closed. And as I bicycle home,
swerving around couples, squeezing between side mirrors
and telephone poles, my ears ring with breath.

Elizabeth Bradfield’s “The Shepherd of Tourists on a $20 Sunset Cruise Speaks” appears in the Fall-Winter 2006-07 (v1.n2) issue of Poetry Northwest and is the subject of this month’s feature. It is hard to imagine a place where nature has more of an impact on its residents than Alaska.

But according to Bradfield, “much as I find solace and inspiration in the natural world, I don’t often write about my work as a naturalist. I think the subject is difficult because becoming an expert forces one to strip away a lot of meandering wonder, to think in terms of how to explain something rather than how to gape at it, and the poetry’s in the gaping and grappling. When I wrote “Shepherd,” I was reading and thinking about the pastoral tradition of Theocritis and about its relationship to contemporary nature poetry. Those shepherds were working shmoes, after all. What would it look like to integrate the idea of job into the pastoral?

“It took a while to find the right vehicle for this idea, one that would sidestep the didactic. But once I worked my way into a form that set the jaded seasonal worker into dialogue with the buried wonder that led her toward that work, the poem began to find its legs. The big, blocky stanzas and long lines of the poem seemed to formally give it a solid heft that communicated both the tradition it came from and the thickness of the issue at the poem’s core. I have to confess that I’m a bit uneasy about this poem, uneasy that it makes the speaker seem too condescending to the whale-watchers. However, in the end, that unease became aligned with the poem’s strength and the attitude stayed.”

Elizabeth Bradfield works as a naturalist and web designer in Anchorage, Alaska. Her poems have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, Field, and Bloom.

“The Shepherd of Tourists on a $20 Sunset Cruise Speaks” appears in the Fall-Winter 2006-07 (v1.n2) issue of Poetry Northwest — subscribe today.