Charles Rammelkamp, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts , Main Street Rag Publishing Company, Charlotte, North Carolina 2017, ISBN: 978-1-59948-655-0 48 pages, $12.00
Entertaining—that is the keyword for this little gem of narrative poetry. Though there is complexity in the tales told in this book which passes on a neglected aspect of history, maritime, societal, late 18th to mid-nineteenth century, the narration is straight forward. The book tells the story of individual women who went to sea on the British sailing ships. Some of the usually page-length tales are told in the first-person. The reader gets a quick glimpse into the heart and mind of a particular woman. The book is divided into three sections: Wives, Prostitutes, Transvestites. A ship contained a rough, often brutal, male society. Life was often about survival. Rammelkamp’s tales give us a look at women who were just as strong as the men. Here is one poem, entire, which illustrates the poet’s style and content.
Saving the Horatio, May, 1815
It was the women Captain Dillon thanked
When the Horatio struck a rock
In the channel, off the island Of Guernsey,
Tearing a hole in the bottom
The size of a crater,
As if from a gunpowder blast.
While the crew worked the pumps,
The women thrummed a sail,
Sewing on strips of oakum to thicken it.
The crew passed it down the ship’s side
Over the gaping wound,
Stanching the leak just enough
For the ship to limp back to Portsmouth.
Nigel Wells, a boatswain’s mate, fell into the sea,
Helping to get the sail overboard,
And though we lowered a boat to rescue him,
The crew pleaded with the captain
To abandon the search,
Terrified we’d all be lost in the delay.
“Only one man, sir,” we begged.
“We are upward of three hundred on board!
We’ve no time to lose!”
Still, it broke our hearts
To see his wife wailing afterwards,
No words of praise enough to assuage her grief.
The poem that follows this is titled “Loss” which is told in the words of Nigel Wills’ wife. She was not consoled by the accolades and honors given by the British navy. The poem gives us the personal contrast to officialdom’s often empty words. Perhaps the truth is colored by where you sit. The two poems are a secular diptych. The archetypal problem of the one vs. the many. The reader can see both views but the personal pain isn’t lessened by any claim of sacrifice for the greater good.
Before leaving this poem, the diction and sound of the words should be noticed. Words such as “pumps,” “thrummed,” “oakum,” “thicken,” “stanching” help create the atmosphere of sailing on a ship in those days. The uncommon word “oakum” is defined in a glossary at the back of the book. This is a book of poetry. Sound and rhythm mean much in the telling. The flow and reiteration of consonants help give each tale a vibrancy.
This book will be a treasure to those interested in maritime history. The names of many ships and voyages are recounted. Glimpses of ship life are given. However, a concurrent theme throughout is the status of women in British society in those years. Though there is still pushback against women’s liberation today, it must be noted that the status of women has improved so much in the 20th and 21st centuries. Contrast the lives of women now and those depicted in the years of which Rammelkamp writes. The average woman had few rights and less prospects if not connected to a reliable and well off man. Read Jane Austen for background. The poet’s women here, for the most part, do not have the prospects of Austen’s Emma. Here are two stanzas from “Fleet Marriage, 1750” that tell all in the strongest of terms.
I won’t say it was the best marriage ever,
But no worse than me mam’s and pa’s;
We got along fine for a while
Until Jack got restless and went back to sea.
Me, I had to go back to whoring.
It was either that, begging, or public charity,
And I sure wasn’t going to work
No ten- and twelve hour days at no factory job.
The Transvestite section tells how women masqueraded as men to eke out a better life monetarily and with respect than if they assumed the roles that women were allotted in those materially astringent days. However, it is not themes but individual stories that make a book like this interesting to the general reader. “Jack Tar’s Lady Parts” is a wealth of stories. I highly recommend it.
© Charles Rammelkamp and Dan Cuddy
Charles Rammelkamp is the author of several previous collections of “historical” poetry sequences, including Mata Hari: Eye of the Day, and a novelist, The Secretkeepers, and several short fiction collections, including A Better Tomorrow and Castleman in the Academy. He is also Prose Editor for Brickhouse Books.
Dan Cuddy is currently an editor of the Loch Raven Review. He has been published in many small magazines , e.g, Antioch Review, Free State Review, Iguana Review, The Potomac, Connections, L’Allure des Mots, Broadkill Review, End of 83. His book Handprint On The Window was published by Three Conditions Press.