Shore Leave

Shore Leave

Shore Leave


            Dr. William N. Stone, Boston Harbor, 1869


He could diagnose the particular illness

from across the docks by the way a sailor

walked off the ship and down the gangway. 


Rickets: the scrawny bow-legged one.

Scabies: the short sailor, bag shouldered,

free-hand scratching vigorously.

TB: the mick’s hunched, stalling cough.

Another hobbled by gangrene’s deathly creep.


He’d ready the lotions, medicines,

scalpels, suture needles, bandages, whiskey.

Ready for bile-filled bellies, bones badly

broken then badly set. Mites and lice,

scurvy’s blackening bruises, bloody

toothless mouths, wreaked livers,

weakened lungs, busted noses, cauliflower

ears, the ooze of puss from open wounds.


Steady stream. They’d queue outside. First stop

before pubs, whores, dinner, a bath,

while they still had cash in hand.


He’d ask them in to his room, seat

each sailor on the table. Quick check

then set to work, probe, mend, amputate,

medicate, bandage, eradicate.


Their breath stinking of rum and rot.

Their talk of storms, endless seas, loss.

Some arrived wearing death’s ragged coat,

he’d refuse their pay. Peer, pry, then lie,

ply with more whisky and send off with a pat.


Heidi Seaborn

This poem initially was about pirates. I then started researching the history of ship and shore doctors during the great sailing ship era. That learning took me to redraft this poem in this form and to epigraph it to a doctor I discovered along the way. It appeared in the 2017 edition of Freshwater Literary Journal.



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