The Black Narrows, by S. Scott Whitaker

This poetry chapbook from Broadkill Press caught my attention at the CityLit Festival last week at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Black Narrows is an oyster shack town on an island in the Chesapeake Bay, an island slowly being submerged by the rising water level and the erosion of its edges. It is a fictional island, but based on actual islands now lost beneath the Bay.

Whitaker’s spare and strong poems describe the people of Black Narrows, and a way of life that has almost disappeared.

At least at the edge of the land,
before ocean swallows all hope,
we know what we want . . . .

There are young boys skating on the ice on Narrows Marsh that cracks like “the snap of crab-backs over thumb”, joyfully racing down the sawgrass-lined channels. And Ally with her rum flask and cigar. There is John Max who “stole / the backside oysters off the beds laid by Smith, / Sharp and Floyd.” And Marie Countee who came as a new bride to live a fantasy of being a waterman’s wife, who has to learn to pry oysters from their beds and pace within the narrow limits of her walls. Folks so poor they save scrapes of material in Mason jars to use as patches.

There are work songs that capture the rhythm of the old sea chanties. And songs about unruly drunken nights. There are some poems about those who leave, going up the coast to cities where they can make their lonely money, and those who stay behind, “who will not leave the marsh until it is broken.” Those too old to leave light their stoves and drink chicory and make meal from horse corn.

Together the poems build a portrait of a place now lost, or nearly so, and its people. Whether they are yelling their drinking songs or quietly going mad, these people will touch you. You will not soon forget them.

What other books have you read about the Chesapeake Bay, its islands or its borders, such as Virginia’s Tidewater or Maryland’s Eastern Shore?

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