Dry-Dock Music: Baltimore By David Salner
“It was therefore an act of supreme trust on the part
of a freeman of color thus to put in jeopardy
his liberty that another might be free.”
—from The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass
Surprising, most of all,
Stanley himself…. On the way to work that day,
he walked through clouds of cinnamon, an amber fog
enveloping the port, all the way to Fells Point
and the dry docks, where he works—
building a ship with four-pound mallet,
driving cotton-white strands between oak planks,
sealing a sharp-built hull with oakum
from keel to turn of bilge. Dry-dock music
freights the air, saw-scrape and mallet-knock,
chatter of carpenter and caulker,
craftsman and slave, of black and Irish
joined in an uneasy hug of labor. He knew the trades,
sailing and caulking, and others that a free man needs
in this slave port, like how to keep his freedom papers
always in his pocket, for the eagle stamp
protects him from slave catchers, the lowest form
of life, who love the music of another’s chains.
His papers say that he was born right here,
born free, but it was in the port of Charleston,
when he was just 15, that two white sailors
who hated slavery, grabbed him by the arms
and told a port patrolman, “This here’s
the cabin boy of our good ship, the Mother Mary.
His name is Stanley Johnson—he’s had a bit
and captain needs him sober, so let us pass.”
He had the wherewithal to play the drunk,
although he’d never had a sip, not then,
and with their help, he slipped
the chains of bondage, set sail on Mother Mary,
kidnapped into freedom. From that day on,
he’s worked on ships, on shipboard only,
where he feels free. Now that he’s old,
the ships he works on are in dry dock,
his papers always in his pocket.
They describe the bearer by his age,
color, height. . . . But they could just as easily
describe a man named Frederick, on his way
to freedom, with papers in his pocket
in the name of Stanley Johnson.
The Spy is pleased to reprint Mr. Salner’s poetry from The Delmarva Review, Volume 9. The literary journal is published by the Eastern Shore Writers Association with support from private contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information, visit: www.delmarvareview.com.
Maryland poet David Salner worked for 25 years as an iron ore miner, steelworker, and general laborer. In addition to the Delmarva Review, his writing has appeared in the Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Threepenny Review, Salmagundi, River Styx, and many other magazines. His third book, Blue Morning Light (2016, Pond Road Press), features poems on the paintings of American artist George Bellows.