"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison


When I was a tugboat 
on the Hudson I was red and I was mighty 
as my river though the might didn’t show 
on me. I was made 
of wood from a forest 
near New Paltz with planks 
that warped and creaked and 
swelled but we held 
fast my planks and I. And we sang 
our working song and we always got along.
We had weighty iron 
hooks at the end of fat lines 
of rope and we always had more 
than enough to do. We asked
no questions of our barges
for they had no power of their own.
We just looked for a lip or a hole to hold 
the hook and we got them 
where they needed to go.

I was a babe on the water,
and I knew all
I needed to know. Sometimes
the current was on my side, and those
were easy times, and sometimes
I had to fight for my life and my rights and
my engine groaned and my back 
room strained and I feared we would lose
our ground and end up 
up river where we had begun. But on 
we pressed. And the winds arrived 
and the days compressed and my timbers 
shivered when the river turned to slush
and then hardened into barge-sized
chunks near shore. But out there
in the open the river insisted it would flow
and it fought 
with all it had, 
so on we moved, with loads of brick, 
loads of ore, sometimes oil, sometimes
food, moving the goods that land-locked folks 
thought they needed 
to live.

I wore a belt 
of tires, so I always felt safe; 
there was no impact
I’d refuse. Go on and ram me, 
I would dare the biggest bully boat. When I was a
tugboat I traveled alone and liked it
that way. I left it to others to talk of needs, 
to run aground, to use up fuel. I forged 
ahead. I sliced through
waves. I made my wake and slept
in it. My engine drowned 
the sounds of stationary
lives on stolid land.

When I was a tugboat, I spoke
the tongue of the water and it
spoke tug and I pulled and I pulled
and I never ceased pulling and I didn’t know
that such a thing as complaint 
was possible. I was nothing 
but strength and strength
felt good, strength felt right and I 
did not know there was wrong on the earth so I did not
look for wrong in me. I looked at trees to see
which way they blew. I looked at birds to see
which way they flew and I was a tug and
a tree and the wind and a bird.

Michele Herman’s first poetry chapbook, Victory Boulevard, was published in 2018 by Finishing Line Press. She was awarded the Best Column award from the New York Press Association, the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize twice, and nominated for a Pushcart. Her poems, essays and stories have appeared widely in reputable places including The New York Times, The Sun and Diagram.

Cover photo by Dušan Smetana on Unsplash

At the King Pines cabin, Adirondacks

At the King Pines cabin, Adirondacks