A poem for the day – Launching the Whaler Juan Peron

A Belfast epic, and one of my oldest poems, the opener of my first collection, Grub. The gist of the story was found in Moss & Hume’s Shipbuilders to the World: 125 Years of Harland and Wolff, Belfast, 1861-1986, which tells how Eva Peron was due to launch a huge whaling vessel in Belfast, built for and named after her husband. Unfortunately, her ill-health and political and economic turmoil in Argentina forced her to cancel, though the story goes that she sent word that a girl from the local workforce should stand in for her…

The poem ties to this an accident that happened during the ship’s fitting-out, though I think the account of this needs no extra explanation.

Launching the Whaler Juan Peron

When all that was solid melted into air
they were sixty feet above the frost
sparkling on the quay and on the water –
strung in the winter evening
like a new constellation.
Pure defiance buoyed them up;
to the insistent wheedling of gravity
their one reply was No Surrender.
Split seconds passed like hours
as the wind froze their faces
in the shapes of confusion
and their minds went backwards and forwards
unhurriedly seeking an explanation
for this casting-off of traces.

The April before, unseasonal showers
had blown from the northern hills.
As if nothing had changed
they could look down through the biting hail
to the scene below them, where
the Latin beauty on the slips isn’t Evita
but her stand-in, Irene McClurg,
her skin almost the colour of shipyard tea,
her hair black as the looks
the foremen wear.
At half an hour’s notice this secretary
from the electrical department
is launching the whaler Juan Peron
at the behest of the would-be guest of honour
who has stayed at home
to be with her husband the dictator
in his trouble.
Eva, already plunging into history,
to tell you the truth the yard is happier
with this Protestant girl.
No Taig queen could raise a cheer
among these roughneck Islandmen
like Irene does…

The suddenly elevated, soon-to-be-dropped girl
stands with the dignitaries
among Union flags and handshakes.
In the South Atlantic,
between the Islas Malvinas
and Deception Island,
the whales keep to their ancestral
straight and narrow
in ignorance of the Juan Peron.
Born in Belfast,
part marvel of engineering
part slaughterhouse,
built to carry 24,000 tons of oil
from the bodies hauled up
bloody and howling into her dark interior
like a film of birth run backwards –
may God and Ulster bless her
and all who sail in her.

Irene goes home to Bangor.
The ship winters in the Musgrave channel
under the black hills. Deep-water
workers feel the cold eating its way
into their bones forever.
Shouldering its superstructure
of winches, hooks and chains, huge drums
dfor oil, blades to shave the flesh
and blubber from the carcass,
all the arthritic machinery,
the Juan Peron plays host to hundreds
of the dunchered creme de la creme,
the lords of the kitchen house
and the frozen outdoor toilet.
It holds them to its bosom like a god.
It cherishes them like a benevolent king.

On the last day of the first month of the new year
nineteen hundred and fifty one,
with rationing in force and Brooke in power,
who saw in their ships
the hardiness, stiff-neckedness and stability
of the Ulster character,
sixty or seventy red-leaders and painters
mass on the top of the two-tiered gangway
that leads from the deck of the whaler Juan Peron
to the Musgrave quay.
They’re talking wages, beer and football,
and when the wooden structure groans
someone who knows they shouldn’t all
be there at once
cracks a bitter joke about a fall
and steps half off the deck, then wavers
with one foot suddenly in mid-air
for what seems like an hour.

Their bodies rain down
through the terrible scream of air rushing
from the severed vein of an air-hose.
Some hit stone, others hit water
and sink like rivets
in the freezing channel.
Some hit the wooden fender under the hull
and the gangway slams down on their bodies.
falling, they caught at anything.
One clutched at an air hose
and climbed back up onto the deck,
and one hung by his fingernails to a loose plate
for fifteen minutes. Most, though,
took hold of the nearest thing, the sleeve
of a workmate, as if two
would fall slower and land softer than one.
The injured lie scattered among bloodied caps
or are pulled from the water
with ice in their lungs.
The dead wait to be identified
by friends, or what was in their pockets.

Two pages back, after the small advertisements –
Smart Boy Wanted … Room To Let
Close To Shipyard –
broken lines and arrows chart their fall
from the Juan Peron.
The survivors talk
of walking in space, of escaping
with cuts and bruises,
of being, by the Grace
of God, delivered;
and shown in close-up,
the gangway hangs
like a fractured arm in a sling.
Everything’s askew.
The tide brings eighteen caps upriver.

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