Cape Charles by Ernest Hilbert

Cape Charles

Slab-like tankers ride at anchor.
The weakened sun still splashes acetylene
Across the water, nearly blinding me.
I swim out and surface amid the inferno,
Turn into the current and swim
For the red-lensed harbor beacon
Perched high on its oil-derrick obelisk.

Foam coughs up from the jetty’s black granite,
And seastink hangs on its edges. Floating up,
I seize the steel ladder and lug my weight
From the soapy backwash of warm water—
The lowest rungs slimy with algae
And bay grass, then the grip of dry iron
As I ascend the little lighthouse.

A great blue heron wheels and returns to shore.
As I reach the platform of metal mesh
The hazard strobe blazes around me
For a while, goes off, then returns.
To the south: a breakwater of half-sunken
Concrete ships, forecastles like fortress orillons,
Hulls squat on their sandbars in low waters.

The messy sunset is alive with wind.
The great marine lamp behind me throws its red,
Reflecting off crests as waves arrive,
Dyeing them as they ride in past the headland.
Now my light’s the only one remaining on the bay.

In the humid dark I feel a storm move closer,
But it’s impossible to know where.
It’s like a weight in the darkness.
I must swim back, but I stay, drying,
My beacon aimed at the night,
A signal, a warning and little else,
Until another light shows itself.


Ernest Hilbert’s books include Caligulan (2015) and Last One Out (2019). He lives in West Philadelphia. Visit him at

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