Poet gives new life to Great Lakes shipwrecks

Mar 2, 2017

A new book by Michigan poet Cindy Hunter Morgan breathes life into shipwrecks that dot the floor of the Great Lakes.

Cindy Hunter Morgan

"Harborless" is her re-imagining of tragic moments when the Philadelphia, Chicora and other ships were lost. 

Though the poems are centered on historic events, she conjures up crew members, pieces of cargo and other vivid details of sinkings that happened more than a century ago.

“All of these poems contain these imaginative moments, and I think that’s what makes them poetry,” Morgan said in an interview with Interlochen Public Radio in Michigan. “That’s where the balance shifts and tips them toward poetry… Most have some nugget of historical accuracy but then they do shift this imaginative territory.”

Morgan, who teaches at Michigan State University, said many of her poems "started with an image." That's clear from reading "Henry Clay," about a freighter that sank in a storm on its way from Detroit to Buffalo. (The poem first appeared in the magazine Salamander.)

Henry Clay, 1851; Lake Erie

Baled wool washed ashore for weeks.

At first, the appearance of each bundle

was sobering and macabre,

but after a few days, one woman

began to look forward to the surprise

and the wealth

of what drifted her way.

She ripped the jute bags

and pulled out the stuffing—wet, still

scented with grease and mystery.

She dried the wool, carded it, spun it,

wound it into skeins,

and made scarves and sweaters.

Sixteen men died when the ship sank.

At least something would come

of the cargo they carried—

mittens for the children of friends,

caps for five nephews.

Sometimes, she wondered why

bales floated and men didn’t,

and what buoyancy meant

for her own life,

dry as it was.