Sent to the ice after white coats,
rough outfit slung on coiled rope belts,
they stooped to the slaughter: gaffed pups,
slit them free of their spotless pelts.
The storm came on unexpected.
Stripped clean of bearings, the watch struck
for the waiting ship and missed it.
Hovelled in darkness two nights then,
bent blindly to the sleet’s raw work,
bodies muffled close for shelter,
stepping in circles like blinkered mules.
The wind jerking like a halter.
Minds turned by the cold, lured by small
comforts their stubborn hearts rehearsed,
men walked off ice floes to the arms
of phantom children, wives; of fires
laid in imaginary hearths.
Some surrendered movement and fell,
moulting warmth flensed from their faces
as the night and bitter wind doled out
their final, pitiful wages.
- What is happening in this poem? Who does it happen to?
- What does this poem suggest about the lives of the men who are performing this dangerous job?
- How does the image of the pure white seal skins at the beginning of the poem contrast to the grisly details of the men’s deaths at the end?
- How does the poet recreate this historic tragedy in a way that makes it feel immediate and relatable?
- If you were going to recite this poem, where would you pause for emphasis and where would you speed up? What tone would you use and where would that tone shift?
- Write a poem about a historical event in which you imagine the physical feelings and inner visions of the people who were there.
Read more about the 1914 Sealing Disaster here: http://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/politics/sealing-disaster-impact.php
Michael Crummey is also a novelist, and here he speaks about the complications of writing about Newfoundland history: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wFx2nPVRuMo
Michael Crummey, “Newfoundland Sealing Disaster” from Hard Light. Copyright © 1998 by Michael Crummey. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Source: Hard Light (Brick Books, 1998).