Triptych after Reading Billy Budd, Sailor 

Poetry / Donna Vorreyer 


:: Triptych after Reading Billy Budd, Sailor  ::

There are no women in this story.  
Should I be astonished 
that the “she” has been pushed aside  
in this ode to desire and denial, 
published so long ago? 
Melville may have been abashed 
at the mere thought of a woman  
in his man’s world of the sea, chosen 
instead established character types, 
men who rushed into actions, 
ones who shed their veneers only  
when their most cherished lies  
were believed, when they resulted  
in pain or lashes for the weak. 
If the old story could be rehashed  
the roles of men could be relinquished  
to minor players. As it is, the only  
mention of a woman in all thirty  
chapters is to say that what is “feminine” 
in man is like a pitious woman  
who falsely tries to cry her way out  
of troubles or in describing the titular hero  
as beautiful, but like “a woman with  
something amiss.” 
II. She is only a ship in this story and a ship is merely a vessel.
III. At the beach, water splashes and in the mountains, spring melt brings freshets. Rivers course through valleys, and in an old woman, the blood ebbs, flow vanished from her body’s ecosystem. She has become invisible, each slight a sheath that protects. There is nothing to hint at her finished glory except perhaps the polished wooden breasts at the bow of a ship, this figurehead a stand-in for what has been forgotten, an artful facsimile, the power of a woman to bear the brunt of waves and survive.

From the writer


:: Account ::

After re-read­ing Bil­ly Budd, Sailor by Her­man Melville, a favorite re-read of mine, I was struck this par­tic­u­lar time by the com­plete non-exis­tence of women in a sto­ry filled with themes that tra­di­tion­al­ly have involved women—desire, jeal­ousy, moral­i­ty, truth ver­sus jus­tice, puri­ty and inno­cence, to name a few. This kicked off a project that is now a man­u­script of prose poems, era­sures, black­outs, and lim­it­ed lan­guage land­scapes that uses Melville’s ele­vat­ed dic­tion as a start­ing point to high­light the sto­ries and con­cerns of women in mod­ern soci­ety. This trip­tych poem served as an entry point into the project, using all of the instances of the let­ters s‑h-e in the novel­la to pon­der era­sure and com­ment on the tra­di­tion­al roles women are expect­ed to play. 


Don­na Vor­rey­er is the author of To Every­thing There Is (2020), Every Love Sto­ry is an Apoc­a­lypse Sto­ry (2016) and A House of Many Win­dows (2013), all from Sun­dress Pub­li­ca­tions. Donna’s art and pho­tog­ra­phy are fea­tured or forth­com­ing in North Amer­i­can Review, Waxwing, Pit­head Chapel, Thim­ble Lit­er­ary Mag­a­zine, Penn Review, The Boil­er and oth­er jour­nals. She lives in the Chica­go sub­urbs where she hosts the month­ly online read­ing series A Hun­dred Pitch­ers of Hon­ey.