Friday, August 22, 2014

Poem for an Old Lighthouse

I've written a number of poems about lighthouses. I thought I'd share one here. No, it isn't National Poetry Week, or any such special occasion. Poetry is for all occasions and for every day.

It's a bit of an anthropomorphic poem, and sad too, but I know you'll forgive that. I provide a voice for things I love, including lighthouses. If they could speak, what would they say? 

As lighthouses have been automated or decommissioned altogether, their purpose has eroded, at least in a small measure, and sometimes their physicality has diminished too. The windows are sealed, the door is locked, self-sufficient devices are hard-wired into them and take over. Robo-Lighthouse? Hardly. But some of them do look odd with plastic canister beacons for eyes and solar panels on their heads. It's rather like putting fancy mag wheels on a Model T or wearing stilettos and a miniskirt when you're 95 years old.

Other old lighthouses stand abandoned, like the one pictured. Martin Edwards took that heart-rending shot of Whiteford Lighthouse in the United Kingdom. Does anything look so forlorn as an old, unwanted lighthouse left to rust and fall apart?

Anyway, here's my poem, written in the early 1980s when automation of lighthouses occupied the Coast Guard Aids to Navigation teams around the nation. I wrote it a few days after returning from a visit to an offshore lighthouse where the ANT from the New London, Connecticut Coast Guard Station was sealing up windows to prevent break-ins. The keepers were packing up their stuff, impatiently smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, ready to be off that lighthouse. They took me up to the lantern to see the newfangled keeper--a sensor that turned the light on and off. There was an alarm on it that would sound all the way back at New London if anything went wrong.

As if to augur the outcome of this "upgrade," a spider dangled from the ceiling, sizing up the wires and switches with her hundred eyes and made a guywire attempt on the plastic lens. She landed expertly and then began her work...

It's a bittersweet thing, automation and progress. Human hands go away; mechanized devices take over. Spiders move in. Money is saved; labor is diverted to other, more pressing work. And buildings that were meant to be homes become hollow, empty places.

"Old Sentinel"
by Elinor DeWire

On a dark, far shore misfortune I presage,

solitary, forsaken, I flicker my message,

calling, warning, imploring

with fading rays cast out to sea

in flashes of withering memory.


Come! Sit by my misty, mortared height

when waves are lashing my walls at night;

feel the tempest coursing and slipping

through the cracks in my granite skin—

let no intruder in, only the wind.


Quench my lamps with oil, not dust;

scrape the gallery, begone the rust!

sit by my light as the hours are passing;

no favors; I wish only to serve,

pride is no more than I deserve.


Shore up my base and mend my door,

take care with your boots on my weathered floor;

their tap-tap music I cherish, indeed!

for it means I have yet a task to do,
a reason to humbly flash.


Stay ‘til the dawn shines on my face,

extinguish my lamp, tidy up the place;

note in the book how I took my turn,

with the other old sentries I shone

to guide the weary mariner home.

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