With so little chance of rain wet-rotting
the wood, the only question was how long
a letter would stay in that barrel waiting

for a traveler from London or Canterbury
or Boston to claim it. For a traveler to go
to an unknown address, deliver
this whaler’s letter without ever
knowing what its words said

The bronchitis, I think, will never
leave me again
Tell Tommy and Johnny to be good boys.
I will do something for them yet.
I expect you are disappointed that
I am going another season.*

Messages relied on the kindness
of strangers, or on strangers feeling
their lives in the folded papers of others.
A woman waited weeks, months, maybe years
for words that brought sobs of relief
or loss or anger. Whatever the message,
she tucked the letter in a drawer
keeping a piece of him close and safe.

We twenty-first century tourists
risk no high seas, and no one waits
to affirm our lives with our handwriting.
Still, we reenact the ritual. A caller pulls
postcards from the barrel, fills the island’s
silence with a litany of places.

Anyone going to Moscow? Santa Monica?
Calgary? Baltimore? We raise our hands
and voices. Take messages.

Mine reads:

Having a great time. Hope you get this soon.

On a day when the smell and light of spring
fill the air, I drive to the leafy detached-home
streets of north Baltimore. True to custom,
I bypass the flagged mailbox
on the ample porch, ring the bell, and wait
for her suspicion and puzzlement.

As I explain “Galapagos” “barrel” “postcard,”
she opens the glass door just wide enough
for her hand to reach the card. Smiling,
she turns away and locks her home.

*The excerpts from letters are adapted from letters in Whaling Letters: A Project of the Descendents of Whaling Masters, Inc. New Bedford, 1980 and 2003.’




Conquered on the Plains of Abraham
where a father would not see descendants
as stars in the heaven lighting the night.

But still on these streets that wind through
the hills, on the country hills that squeeze
so much green out of such a short summer

Ils se souviennent. They tell me
English for our work. French our identity.
Canadien their heritage, this narrows

swelling with history. Whose history?
I ask, struggling to remember the accent
in Québec, the rudiments of French.

My ancestors left for the forests of Vermont
in the Adirondack Mountains. Lured
by that other America I now

struggle to forget. Can I live on
New York island and remember who
I have become, am becoming.

Not our descendants, but
our dreams are stars in the night
Dreams are our heritage and future

Can we squeeze the hopes of a nation
from those huddled masses lured by that torch
we hold as accents, as memories?



Michelle M. Tokarczyk lives in New York City, where she was born and raised. Her poetry books are Bronx Migrations (Cherry Castle Publishing) and The House I’m Running From (West End Press). Her poems have also appeared in numerous journals and anthologies; including Third Wednesday, Writers Resist, the minnesota review, The Literary Review, and For a Living: The Poetry of Work (U of Ill. P). Tokarczyk is professor emerita of English at Goucher College.