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Edward Harkness: My Father Meets Margaret Bourke-White 

It happens aboard a troop ship crossing
the Atlantic. He has just turned nineteen,
a newly trained B-17 gunner.
She is twice his age, a photographer 

for Life magazine, striking, he’d recall, 
in her leather flight jacket when they meet 
on deck one clear night, the moon just risen, 
its blue road undulant in the ship’s wake.

Good evening, young man, she says. Cigarette?
He’s seen her in news reels. No thank you, ma’am.
She pulls out a pack of Camels. Your first 
crossing, I gather. I’m from Bremerton, 

he tells her. Uh huh. Well, prepare yourself,
my young friend. The Gulf of Naples is on fire,
full of sunken ships, bombed out buildings. 
He studies the glow of her cigarette.

She is taller than he by half a foot. 
They lean on the rail, her arm against his
in its tan GI-issue sleeve. We’ll see 
Gibraltar at dawn, she says. Portside. 

Moonlight silvers her hair. He finds a Hershey bar
in his breast pocket, offers her a piece. 
She flicks her cigarette into the dark, 
takes the chocolate and says, Thanks, kiddo.

Later, she will show the world Buchenwald  
survivors, Gandhi at his spinning wheel,
anti-apartheid protestors risking death.
Now, she stands by my father, neither one

ready for what is to come, neither one
aware that this night is a war souvenir, 
one my father will keep well-hidden, vivid 
as the time he knew he’d die, his bomber

lost in fog over the Alps, more intense 
than the blue Adriatic he would cross 
three dozen times from his base in Foggia.
Crammed inside his glass ball in the plane’s belly, 

he’d count bombs released from the bay doors,
track them as they tumbled dream-like toward Vienna,
Hamburg, Berlin. People died screaming, he knew,
inside those tiny puffs of smoke. He’d recall that night

with Bourke-White, the silver of her hair, sharing 
his chocolate bar on the portside deck. At sunrise, 
just as she had said, their arms touching on the railing,
they watch the Rock of Gibraltar come into view.

Copyright 2022 Ed Harkness

The Law of the Unforeseen, Edward Harkness’ third full-length collection of poems (released September 2018) is available at Pleasure Boat Studio. He lives with his wife, Linda, in Shoreline, Washington. 

LIFE photographer Margaret Bourke-White making a precarious photo from the Chrysler Building in 1934. (Photo by Oscar Graubner/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images)

12 comments on “Edward Harkness: My Father Meets Margaret Bourke-White 

  1. Lex Runciman
    September 20, 2022

    Gorgeous poem, Ed. And thanks to Vox Populi for running it.


  2. loranneke
    September 20, 2022

    “the moon just risen,
    its blue road undulant in the ship’s wake….” and other truly original and compelling images images. Beautiful narrative.


    • Vox Populi
      September 20, 2022

      Thanks, Laure-Anne. I like Edward’s well-crafted verses. They weave moving tales out of small moments.



    • harkness01
      September 21, 2022

      Thank you, Loran.


  3. John Zheng
    September 20, 2022

    A joy to read. Once wrote an ekphrastic poem on Bourke-White’s photographs of women in WWII.


    • Vox Populi
      September 20, 2022

      Thanks, John.



    • harkness01
      September 21, 2022

      Thank you, John. I’d like to see your ekphrastic poem.


      • John Z
        September 21, 2022

        Here’s the poem, a haibun:

        The Shift of Roles

        —Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs of women

        When World War II dragged men to the battlefields, women became welders, crane operators, oilers, grinders, coil tapers, foundry helpers, and shippers, doing whatever they could and earning same wages as men. When the War ended, they changed into wives, sisters, mothers, and homebodies. Their roles shifted without notice from their men.

        It’s a boy!
        the husband utters in joy
        outside the labor room

        Liked by 1 person

        • Vox Populi
          September 21, 2022

          thanks, John!

          Liked by 1 person

          • harkness01
            September 21, 2022

            I like this, John, in particular the subtle irony of the last three lines and the comment the poem makes about the perpetual locked-in role of women once their usefulness in typically male roles ends.

            Liked by 1 person

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