PSS Lelia

The detail is just so. The scale OT. The sea
parts, pitches, rages. On another canvas it might
be mountains peaked with snow. Not now.
The ship, head down, is caught between
newsprint and imagination. Smoke streams
horizontal, assumes paddles flailing, driving
the vessel on and down. Steam shrieks believably
from the whistle at a funnel. The sky, much loved
friend of the romantic artist, pretends to be
the hustling ogre of the piece, while the noiseless
gale goes about its work, invisibly.

It’s a scene of deaths, engraved.
The steamer will take her share, and the
Lifeboat, with oars in disarray and ten
men visible, is posed to overturn, held on
this course by the treachery of a safety line.
And there, just parting from the grasping clouds,
is land. Almost unseen, beyond reach, North Wales.

Not quite like that. 1865 – our steamer
is Bahamas bound. A ruse – she’s really heading
for The South. She’s Lelia, new-built
in Toxteth, of revolutionary steel, and lighter
than an ironclad. We may envisage,
packed like ninepins in her holds, bullets,
rifles, bayonets.  Why? Plantation cotton lines
the pockets of the rich whose kingdoms
line the parks and boulevards of Merseyside.

Against the westerly she sails, and tempests
tear her anchors loose, smashing through
the decks. Helpless, and in the Mersey Bay,
she sinks. Liverpool’s Lifeboat arrives
too late. On both, most drown.
The Confederacy also fails. Everything is
unconnected and not. Fate makes
its accidental judgement and is partial.
Apparently, and in the run of luck, we win.

Nothing is forever. Lost in 50 feet
The inevitable occurs. She’s found. The Great
Orme, Llandudno’s persistent charm, stands
guard a century and more, then divers bring
her bell to land. Last heard above the storm,
its silence now is almost testament enough.
Technology is brought to life, her wreck
is scanned, and here she is in shades.
Poor doomed Lelia – boilers, a paddle,
ribs broken, the outline of her hull – remains.

Heritage time – she is declared,  protected.
Language musters at the rail, salutes
a role in civil war, in slavery and trade,
we knew, and did not know, we had.
Scattered in the silt and slime, or lost,
the tangled lines of pride and profit,
the missing voices of the guns,
the muted links in chains of hope and freedom.

One thought on “PSS Lelia

  1. ‘…the muted links in chains of hope and freedom…’ The poem captures the interconnected complexity and irony of mercantile Liverpool’s rise and the Confederacy’s fall, and the wasting of life both entailed – with the paddle steamer, despite it’s cutting edge technology, the symbol of that irony and complexity. A history previously unexplored in poetry. And, throughout , the noise of the storm and the sea, and metal shaped ultimately to no purpose.


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