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The Cable Ship -- Harry Edmund Martinson

(Poem #1065) The Cable Ship
 We fished up the Atlantic Cable one day between the Barbadoes and the
 held up our lanterns
 and put some rubber over the wound in its back,
 latitude 15 degrees north, longitude 61 degrees west.
 When we laid our ear down to the gnawed place
 we could hear something humming inside the cable.

 "It's some millionaires in Montreal and St John
 talking over the price of Cuban sugar, and ways to
 reduce our wages", one of us said.

 For a long time we stood there thinking, in a circle of lanterns,
 we're all patient cable fishermen,
 then we let the coated cable fall back
 to its place in the sea.
-- Harry Edmund Martinson
Translated from the Swedish by Robert Bly.

I just finished reading a wonderful book - "The Last Grain Race", by Eric
Newby. It's about the author's experiences as an apprentice seaman on board
the 'Moshulu', a four-masted barque that sailed the trade route between
Europe and Australia by way of the Atlantic, the Cape of Good Hope, and the
Indian Ocean (outwards), and the Southern Ocean, Cape Horn and the Atlantic
again (back). The crew of the Moshulu were mainly Scandinavian, descendants
of a long line of seafarers and wanderers, and it's precisely that group of
hardy folk that Martinson describes in (several, but by no means all of) his

Martinson was awarded the Nobel Prize 'for writings that catch the dewdrop
and reflect the cosmos'; reading today's poem, you can see why.



HARRY EDMUND MARTINSON (b. May 6, 1904, Jämshög, Swed.--d. Feb. 11, 1978,
Stockholm), Swedish novelist and poet who was the first self-taught,
working-class writer to be elected to the Swedish Academy (1949). With
Eyvind Johnson he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1974.

Martinson spent his childhood in a series of foster homes and his youth and
early adulthood as a merchant seaman, labourer, and vagrant. His first book
of poetry, Spökskepp ("Ghost Ship"), much influenced by Rudyard Kipling's
Seven Seas, appeared in 1929. His early experiences are described in two
autobiographical novels, Nässlorna blomma (1935; Flowering Nettle) and Vägen
ut (1936; "The Way Out"), and in original and sensitive travel sketches,
Resor utan mål (1932; "Aimless Journeys") and Kap Farväl (1933; Cape
Farewell). Among his best-known works are Passad (1945; "Trade Wind"), a
collection of poetry; Vägen till Klockrike (1948; The Road), a novel that
sympathetically examines the lives of tramps and other social outcasts; and
Aniara (1956; Aniara, A Review of Man in Time and Space), an epic poem about
space travel that was turned into a successful opera in 1959 by Karl Birger
Blomdahl. Martinson's language is lyrical, unconstrained, innovative, and
sometimes obscure; his imagery, sensuous; his style, often starkly realistic
or expressionistic; and his philosophy, primitivistic. He was married to
another noted Swedish writer, Moa Martinson, from 1929 to 1940.


[Minstrels Links]

There's no shortage of sea poems on the Minstrels; two which I'm
particularly reminded of are:
Poem #147, The Unspoken -- Edwin Morgan
Poem #758, Sea-Change -- John Masefield

Incidentally, the Minstrels website has several new features; visit and see if you can spot them!
Thanks as ever to Sitaram for his programming wizardry.

[this poem is archived, accessible and waiting for your comments at]

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