Adventure #16, “Blessing the Boats”


The Dock, 5″x 5″ water color on film medium

Years ago, after viewing a few of my paintings, a brilliant young lady asked me to paint her a picture she had found in a National Geographic. The photograph she handed me was composed of a dock jutting out into the placid, slightly overexposed ocean with an empty horizon undulating beneath an eye-blue sky. Just off camera a darkness, suggesting an approaching storm, cast long, languid shadows across the empty dock. The scene felt frozen, no “punct,” as Roland Barth outlines in Camera Lucida, emerged from the scene to suggest a dynamic moment captured on the brink of its realization. Instead the image felt phantastic, a synchronic instance removed from the context of its creation, a simulacra indicating the contours and uncertainty of memory. This mode of representation, at the time, suggested loneliness, but now the solidity of the dock set against the vanishing point across which sky merges with water seems hopeful, an instance of strength fashioned from the formless. It is a generative representation, and reminds me of Lucille Clifton’s “Blessing the Boats (at St. Mary’s),” a poem that speaks to the anxiety and fearlessness inherent in trying to become when the success of that becoming is so naturally uncertain:

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back     may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

Clifton’s notion of innocence, which relates the narrator’s wish to the moment of the listener’s transformation, is not an “innocence from experience,” as in some of William Blake’s poetry, but innocence from the cynicism that shapes every action as a means of achieving a predetermined end. Here the end is simply to act, or more specifically, engage in an effort to connect with another, to touch her without reducing that choice to a specific goal or objective that one might seek to hoard or assess. Instead, the moment “to turn to water / water waving forever” is appreciated for the peace it manifests and not for its product. Indeed, nothing is accomplished by “kissing the wind” or watching the water “waving.” These gestures affirm being present, as when reflecting upon a feeling. And when the listener acts, she does so by moving “through this to that,” a sense of transition that more accurately represents how we experience life. In life, we move from a moment of awareness toward one of possibility, some imagined manifestation, and do so again and again. This notion cuts through the standard categories of maturation: infant to child to tweener to teenager to adult to middle aged to elderly to something else. In this journey, we are not seeking to know with certainty, to package experience, but instead to set free the ties and float toward “forever” and away from “this,” quietly kissing “the wind then” turning “from it / certain that it will / love” our backs.

In reciting Clifton’s poem, as I have since I was young, I am reminded of that young woman (and her kind and funny siblings who rarely leave my thoughts). I think of how she gently handed me that page from the National Geographic, a little uncertain, and how I promised her that I would paint her that scene. Here, so long after, is the best I could do. And even though I will never see her again, I am happy knowing that she will do well. And in the spirit of this knowledge, I dedicate my painting and Clifton’s blessing to her and all those young women who are just now leaning, full of hope, into the unknown, furtively kissing the wind, and turning a little each day toward the tide.



About piferm

I am an associate professor at Husson University.
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