Poet turns Great Lakes shipwrecks to verse

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By Kate Habrel

A 200-pound ship’s radiator interrupted a funeral in 1922 when it plunged from the sky and into the Falk Undertaking Parlors.

It came from the Omar D. Conger, a ship blown to pieces when its boiler exploded while docked at Port Huron, Michigan.

“That part is accurate! It happened! And that’s just bizarre!” said Cindy Hunter Morgan, assistant professor of creative writing at Michigan State University. “When I read that, I thought, I’ve got to build a poem around that.”

And she did. From that poem:

“There were some who said the coming

of the radiator was an expression

of God’s solidarity with those who grieved

and some who said the coming

was the beginning

of an eleventh plague.”

The wreck of the Conger and 33 other ships, find poetic life in Hunter Morgan’s new book, “Harborless.” Each poem is informed by a different Great Lakes shipwreck, titled by the lost vessel’s name and the year it went down.

Hunter Morgan’s interest in shipwrecks began as a child camping on her grandmother’s land in Oceana County, Michigan. Every year, she saw a shipwreck at the channel where Stony Creek empties into Lake Michigan.

The wreck’s origins remain unknown. But the inspiration remained.

Hunter Morgan did thorough research before writing. She read about each ship and visited the museums at Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Whitefish Point.

After so much reading, many of the wrecks started sounding the same. The decision of which wrecks to include eventually came down to the details.

“Every now and then, I would come across some nugget of information that just felt like a little gem,” Hunter Morgan said. “The poems, in some ways, becomes this playful exploration of language associated with disaster. But the historical nuggets of disaster are still in the poems.”

These disasters reach from the wreck of the Erie in 1841 to the 1989 wreck of the Mesquite. Most of the ships sank thanks to poor weather, fire or a collision, she said.

Perhaps the strangest wreck was that of the W.W. Arnold in 1869. The ship met with a winter storm only hours after departure and vanished. One month later, a mail carrier whose route followed the shore reported he’d found a ship beached near the W.W. Arnold’s planned route, prompting men from the Masonic Order to search for the captain’s body.

They arrived to find the beach littered with debris. They found scraps of clothing and canvas, but were too late to recover the bodies before they decomposed.

“We have men who are scattered, a search party which is lost, the bodies that are scattered, and this sense of confusion,” Hunter Morgan said. “So for this poem, I chose a form that is in fact fragmented, and has a kind of scattered visual quality.”

Cindy Hunter Morgan

Readers can find her sources and more historical information in a notes section at the end.

The heart of “Harborless” lies in the imaginative poetry. Just like the wrecks, no two poems are alike. Some span pages. Others are only a few lines.

Since each poem is so unique, they’re all memorable to Hunter Morgan for different reasons. But one, the Pewabic, sticks with her because of its vivid imagery.

“That ship went down and for a long time, nobody could find it,” Hunter Morgan said. “They did eventually, and what they found was life paused. Divers came into one space and found a table with three passengers, skeletons, still seated around the table. In the pockets of their trousers, divers found coins. It’s a weird kind of preservation.”

The book also includes six “Deckhand” poems unrelated to any specific wreck. They are fictional accounts of an unnamed crew member meant to anchor the collection.

“The Deckhand poems are working in that way that section-breaks work in other books,” Hunter Morgan said. “But he’s somebody alive — we follow him throughout, and maybe he gives a reader a little hook, a little something to hold on to, when everything else is sinking.”

No one can know what sailors thought as their ships went down, she said. No one knows the true cause of many wrecks.

But through a combination of art and history, books like these help readers imagine what might have happened.

“I think one of the wonderful things about poetry in general is that it allows space for mystery,” Hunter Morgan said. “It would be impossible to eradicate mystery from these wrecks — and also, inappropriate. It is part of their allure. It is true that there are things we will never know.”

“Harborless,” published by Wayne State University Press, is available for purchase for $16.99. She has also published two poetry collections titled “Apple Season” and “The Sultan, The Skater, The Bicycle Maker.”

You can find out more about Hunter Morgan and her poetry at her website.

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