The sinking of The Titanic on her maiden voyage in 1912 continues to fascinate people. The story unfolds like a Greek tragedy and has been the subject of many poems, both at the time and since. The ship sank 104 years ago and laws were changed afterwards, such as enough lifeboats for everyone. The worst casualties were among third class passengers setting off for a new life in America, many of them Irish. Cruelly, women and children were split from husbands and fathers by the old rule ‘women and children first’, even where there was room in the lifeboats. Abigail Wyatt writes about the widows of the Titanic.
Over the next few days, I will be featuring some contemporary poems and prose pieces about it. Thanks are due to their authors for allowing me to publish their work.
We come to it in our different ways – just as we,
ourselves, in our lives before, were distinct
in this and that: the fine arch of an eyebrow,
the sloping of a shoulder, the tilt or thrust of a chin.
We wear our losses awkwardly, like unfamiliar clothing,
our real clothes being not what they should be:
it is not what we expected: to be thus attired,
to be dishevelled and hemmed by this dark.
After the grab and bustle, there is the slow pull of the oars;
we are marooned in the grip of this grim spectacle;
our ears are filled with a thunderous roar
and this great, proud ship breaks its spine.
Then its lights go down: there are no more cries;
the weight of silence presses down on us.
Once the sun shone warm and the band played on;
now we shiver and we cannot take it in.
It is the little losses that torment our thoughts,
as if to think such trifles might preserve us:
a glittering frock with a silver fringe is torn past all repair;
a matron weeps for a pin lost to the deep;
a hollow-eyed bride mourns her trousseau;
but, even as we draw our tatters close,
our splendour is the wealth of the grave.
So, the frost stills our tongues as the hours limp by
and we dare not give much credence to tomorrow;
to think of it defeats our strength as if we too
might lose our grip and slip into the deep;
and, while some of us, a few, may survive our grief
and, one day, think to love again and marry,
for most of us, no matter how long,
our drowned hearts will forever be in weeds.
Full fathom five thy father lies,
of his bones are coral made;
those are pearls that were his eyes;
What the sea does and does so well
is to embrace and change
all things to its cool element.
From the Titanic a suitcase is lifted,
like a drowned dog, its body leaking;
folded, laundered shirts are stained.
A pile of crumbling junk, that ship;
crunching bacteria fasten
nibbling mouths on its very steel;
the railings’ fur of barnacles
outlives the stoles of women.
The champagne may still be drinkable.
On the ocean floor in pliés
pairs of boots point outward toes.
Rusticles hang like crystallised tears.
Shoals of fish play small chase
in and out the rusty portholes.
Where is Hartley’s violin?
Angela Topping (from The Way We Came 2007)