national anthology of the best
undergraduate writing 2010

The Boot-legged Boy and the Harbormaster: a Tragedy in Two Acts

Self-Portrait , Estathea Lyons

I’d been having trouble breathing.
Since birth I’ve been building
a diving bell out of scraps
of post-war stories of another lost generation.
Tested in the winding rivers of Pennsylvania—
each name resounding with the poetry of
people more in tune with earth and God
than the whole of heavenly hosts of the West:
Allegheny, Susquehanna, Monongahela—
I was always busy checking for leaks.


I spent summers in the Schuylkill.
Heat fluttered above the surface in big-city electric lights.
Surrounded by Philadelphia,
I looked for love every day,
always careful to keep from camping on the banks.
Six packs of something light or whatever’s on tap and spliffs half-packed with hash,
were enough to plug the leaks.
One winter, in an Appalachian valley,
I learned self-reliance in a way that would have made Thoreau sweat.
I mixed a stack of books bribed out of sidewalk bargain carts
with cigarettes wrapped in licorice papers,
forged them into armor over a back garden bonfire.
The heat in my core dropped beyond measure,
but one can learn to live without heat.


In the brackish bastard of Tampa Bay,
I met a harbormaster.
She looked at me in my bell as though it were skin.
In an effort to reach her
I wandered too far from the boat.
Half-sea, warm and soft with life, poured through
a hose that had suddenly grown short.
Soaking, I died.


White light revives me.
Its source keeps me blind.
Overwhelmed, every atom of me excites to a vapor:
in my bell, I am distilled.
In a hole that I used to breathe from,
a perfection and reduction of who I am drips out.
All that is left is
staring at its source, the harbormaster.
The pure love left makes most men OD, but
I’ve been snorting rough-cut love since the second grade.


The world’s bigness I saw from a child’s eyes shrank
as did my faith.
Confession taught me we’ve been bad since the beginning.
But in the beginning there was a word,
and that word was
This is my open confession of its divinity
I don’t have much left to believe in. And I believe.


I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately.
Outside the comfort of the bell
I surround myself in the heat of others
and black coffee
wondering: where have you gone, white light?
Rain runs slantways on my skin.
I like the feeling.


I don’t need to build another bell.
I am beginning to believe everything that I read
and the trouble is that you’ve given me no reason not to.
Now I’m convinced that if Keats made mix tapes
it would be twenty-two tracks of your voice.
I swear you met Degas, once,
He lit your cigarette
and tried to capture your grace in paintings of a ten-year-old French ballerina.
He painted until the day he died. He couldn’t quit.


I sit at a table of strangers and keep the coffee coming,
fill my lungs with smoke
in an effort to exhale something other than my own breath.
I am watching dawn get passed through the ass-end of midnight as
I sound my one regret: if only I could love you harder.