A Collection of Poems: Isleboro by Ice, Last Ride of the Icebreakers

By Matt Bernier

Isleboro by Ice

1835, Feb.8.  Bay frozen to the outermost islands.  Sleighs passed and repassed across the bay until March.  J.Y. McClintock was the first to venture by this mode of conveyance to Islesboro’, after which many others followed his example.

History of the City of Belfast in the State of Maine (1877)

He opens the barn door on another

cold morning and discovers they’re

both restless, his horse’s eyelashes

fluttering at the sunrise across frozen

Belfast Bay, James worrying that

the ice’s thickness portends another

1816, another year without a summer,

when the crops failed and his father

crunched across a July hoar frost and

starved his youth of his family’s mare;


James never thought of the eruption of

Mount Tambora in the Dutch Indies as

the volcanic anger of a wrathful God,

more like a shot heard across a field,

and then another field, and another,

until the cold echoed around the world;

he tried to think of this year, 1835, as

just another year, but the ice reminded

the old timers of the winter of 1787,

ice so thick on the bay the king tide

lifted boulders from their sea beds

and moved them around like troops;

hay is already getting scarce, from

fifteen to twenty dollars per ton,

but James is surprised, when he finally

looks into his horse’s eyes, at the

defiance, a snort and emphatic kick

cracking a hemlock board on its stall;

an expression, staring out the open door,

that James later describes in terms of


revolution, his horse leaning into the

February cold with the shiny steel bit,

leather harness as stiff as tree bark,

as James marches horse and sleigh

to Board Landing and climbs onto the

wooden seat, wrapping himself in a

thick bearskin that once rolled in ripe

blueberries on the east-facing slope of

Frye Mountain, gliding out onto the

heaving frozen harbor, free of freight,


so that when the ice rings out like

a cracking whip the horse thinks

the race is on, something out of the

mythology James used to teach students,

the winged story of Pegasus, perhaps,

quickly becoming the tale of Icarus

as the horse follows the sun, gliding

southeasterly across Penobscot Bay;

later James cannot explain why he

didn’t turn the horse back towards


a quick jaunt to Searsport, even when

they sailed over the place where

the two hundred seventy-seven pound

halibut was caught years before, where

they would later harpoon bluefin tuna;

something about the vast, glittering

whiteness of it all suggested a divine

destination, a place you were supposed to

reach for when gunshots and volcanos

exploded, even when you were thirty-four,


not knowing it was the end of an era,

the Little Ice Age, it would be christened,

and the manufactories and coal fires

and locomotives would eventually ensure

that the bay would never freeze, and the

untrammeled sea ice and steam from your

horse’s nostrils kept you stoking the fire

until you saw land, Turtles Head, the horse

not daring to stop, ruffled Atlantic beyond,

Islesboro by ice by the grace of winter.


Last Ride of the Icebreakers

The end to Maine winters was prophesied

by one last ride of three icebreakers,

65-foot Coast Guard cutters, harbor tugs,

converging on a frozen Penobscot River,


black hulls reinforced for a denial of ice—

Bridle slipping out of Southwest Harbor

before dawn, Tackle from Rockland already

looming in the darkness, awaiting Shackle


to slip its bonds in South Portland

and storm northward past Vinalhaven—

new moon wrestling tides, an existential

struggle with sea level rise, nature defeated


a year earlier in Antarctica, Twaites glacier

retreating, collapsing, the news finally reaching

the shores of North America, yet one last

winter for Maine—a cold snap and frazil ice


piling up in Winterport until the ice was

compressed into diamonds sparkling in

a fiery sunrise, day breaking on an epic

battle, one last chance to move fast and


smash things, Bridle cleaving the ice floes

in two, Tackle and Shackle sending smaller

pieces spinning into coves—unlike the

old days when the ice was a solid foot thick


and the coastal mountains echoed with

shrieks and crunching armor, eiders cloaked

in black-and-white certainty nodding

on the bay, icebreakers stopped cold—


ice surrendering freely, “cocktail ice”

the Coast Guardsmen later recalled,

toasting a heritage of freeing the river

for oil tankers that warmed the world.