(Stave Island, on the St. Lawrence)
As I jump from the boat to the dock
my friend calls out, "Tie it with half-hitches.
I don't want it getting loose in the night."
Half-hitches-I half-remember the word.
When I was a boy, our neighbor, Al Moon,
thinking it was something boys should learn,
taught me knots. He was a painter,
and you could see him on a summer day,
edging down a roof line, rappelling from chimney,
painting the flashing a brilliant red, or,
ladder tied to under-eave, he'd lean to dormer's edge
to finish off a window sill with one quick line.
He taught me his knots, starting with easy ones:
lark's head, cat's paw, clove hitch, and square knot.
Cow hitch, anchor bend, sheepshank, barrel bight.
And what they were for: never use a square knot
to join two different ropes; use a sheet bend instead.
Use a timber hitch where a clove hitch would bind
from being wet or holding too much weight.
And the simple bowline the king of knots
the bowline never slips or jams.
"I can pull you from a well with this," he said,
"and never crush your lungs."
I pictured myself in the slick esophagus of earth,
waiting for the dangling rope from Mr. Moon,
tying my perfect bowline and being pulled to light,
to the clapped relief and cheers of those who loved me.
Al Moon, I need you now: I am helpless to recall
the knots I need to hold this boat all night.
The kinds of knot I tie will either slip or jam,
and what I cannot hold by heart and wish
I wrap, like a spider, in thick cocoons.
I think you are painting a house now,
as I cling to a ledge in the well's slick side,
calling your name, less loudly each time,
afraid to fall asleep, waiting for your face
in the circle of all I can see.
Remind me, Al Moon, of the bowline's strength.
Let the rope be long enough. Let me tie it right.