Poem of the Week | September 17, 2013

[This text is also available online as part of our TextBox anthology.]

This week we’ve dug up a poem by Jennifer Atkinson from our Fall 2007 30.3 issue. Atkinson is the author of four collections of poetry. “Good Friday, 1989” is from her third, Drift Ice (Etruscan Press). The fourth and most recent book, Canticle of the Night Path, which won Free Verse’s New Measure Prize, came out in the winter of 2012 / 2013. Individual poems have appeared in various journals including Field, Image, Witness, New American Writing, Terrain, Poecology, Cincinnati Review, and, of course, The Missouri Review. She teaches in the poetry MFA and BFA programs at George Mason University in Virginia.

Author’s note:

Nowadays when I read this poem, I often add to the end either a comment or an extra line about other oil spills—the Gulf spill and whatever one has occurred most recently and/or nearest to the place where I’m reading. The undergraduates and many graduate students weren’t even born yet when the Valdez hit Bligh Reef in Alaska.

Good Friday, 1989

Bligh Reef off Valdez, Alaska


Equinoctial days, light winds: a short fetch and a shallow swell.


All day snow rots in sooty, rain-riddled mounds,
Snow bulldozed off the tarmac, the dock,
All but the corners of the Valdez parking lots.
Nights under the streetlights, the cloud-dulled moon,
The snow heaps freeze over, the day shift sleeps.


Bligh Island light, the Coast Guard lights, the Alyeska office
Lights show up like moth holes in a woolen sky.
In retrospect I’m tempted to call it tenebrous dark,
For the rich mythic sound, the liturgical grandeur,
The once and once onliness of the words,


But that March night was all so routine —
A night run’s insomniac boredom,
A good drunk to numb it, See ya,
A slip-up, another — as ordinary
As a misplayed four of clubs.


And a single-hulled tanker rammed Bligh Reef.


It’s hard to give up the illusion of once, of before, of primordial
Clean, a world , a sound, a single pristine cove untouched
By human greed and grief, the smear of human fingers.
Meanwhile, black ribbons and reams, bolts of satiny stuff unfold,
Unfurl into the water. Meanwhile, the spilled oil spreads,
Sheets, finds its own level breadth. The sheen
Congeals to a lid, like the bland skin
On a pan of boiled milk, the paraffin seal on a jar of preserves.


Meanwhile the wind picks up, the waves churn a greasy foam.
Beach rock, sea stars, seals, fin fish, popweed,
Mussels, otters, kelp, ducks, plankton, alder, plover
Slick up and tar. Whole days pass, the spill’s range widens.
Meanwhile Easter’s shipped-in lilies bloom
In their pink and purple foil-wrapped pots.
All over the Exxon-Alyeska company town
The gorgeous, viscous scent of a greenhouse spring.


Meanwhile, money, media, and blame spill in,
As the effort to hose things clean begins:
More error to displace and efface error,
To trace back the cause to a single man’s fault,
Too many whiskeys, too much trust, badly maintained equipment.


And hot oil slides down the pipeline toward Valdez. . .


And a tanker plows though the swells off Las Palmas, Long Island, Galicia, the Niger delta…