Piracy is now endemic to the Somali coast, since the West will do nothing to stop it. —News item, 2008

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. —T.S. Eliot

Mermaids, sing me pirate tunes
Of ducats, deniers, and doubloons;
Of schooners on a Spanish Main
Alive with squall and hurricane;
Of ambuscadoes, feints, and raids,
Crisp musketry and cannonades—
Sing of cutlass, dirk, and dagger,
Buccaneers whose saucy swagger
Struts the deck in savage style
As Jolly Roger’s lethal smile
Oversees with bony grin
All the crimes of flush-faced sin.

Sing of lookouts who will scan
Horizons for a merchantman,
And avarice that flares in broils
About division of the spoils.
Sing of murder on the seas—
Grapeshot whistling through the breeze,
Grappling hooks and anchor chains,
Windlass, rigging, splattered brains,
Swordplay, duels, and torrid clenches
With slavegirls and mulatto wenches,
The knowing smirk of cabin boys
Who serve as sodomitic toys.

Sing, my mermaids, of an age
Of insolence and passion’s rage;
Sing of scuttled ships and wrecks,
Of whetted knives at helpless necks,
Flintlocks primed to maim and mangle,
Yardarms from which corpses dangle.
Sing of powder and its stink,
Stolen money’s lurid clink,
Outrage and unholy lust,
Perjured oaths and broken trust,
Hell’s supreme unchallenged sway—
Sing, sweet mermaids, of today.



Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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17 Responses

  1. Julian D. Woodruff

    Mr. Salemi,
    To paraphrase Pauline Kael, you do to piracy and it’s living practices and attitudes what ought to be done to them. Thank you!

  2. Peter Hartley

    Joe S -This poem is strongly reminiscent for me of one I wrote at the age of eight on an acetate sheet and superimposed on a watercolour of the Spanish Main for the backdrop to a fish-tank in my class at school. They are both about pirates, and they both paint a vivid picture. There the comparison stops, I’m happy to say. But I did learn a lot about pirates at that tender age – the subject fascinated me and I read book after book on the subject till I knew the difference between grape shot and chain shot, wheel-locks and flintlocks, foretop-gallants and mizzen shrouds. This poem conveys a picture that transports me back to those times without a trace of anachronism, as from somebody who has truly immersed himself in this little bit of our history, but more than that, this man has stood and fought upon the very decks themselves. The detail is masterful – all this in a single fairly short poem – and it leaves me wishing it were longer. A little excerpt from my own poem (why should I be embarrassed by such excruciating juvenilia that has put me off archaisms ever since): “My heart doth dwell ‘pon the roaring Main, on salt sea spray and lashing rain”. Happily that is about all I remember, and all I want to remember, but yours should be remembered by all who read it, like Noyes’s Highwayman and Masefield’s Snow

  3. Leo Zoutewelle

    Doctor Salemi, that was just, simply, wonderful! Thank you.

  4. Joe Tessitore

    Man, this is a brilliant poem.
    It grabs you from its very first line and doesn’t let go.
    Bravo, Dottore!

  5. Mike Bryant

    Absolutely mesmerizing. It must be read out loud to get the taste of all the delicious words and imagery. Really beautiful.

  6. Sally Cook

    Dear Joe –

    As usual, you make it all look so easy. And so accurate; not just on the coast of Africa,
    either. Congratulations on your fine work.

  7. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    I admire this poem on many levels. Firstly, the musicality of the language and the sumptuous array of words. Secondly, the picture it conjures: the poem paints scenes that capture the raw, raucous and rabid essence of the pirate. I know this will sound somewhat strange, but it reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” in the immediacy and intimacy of the vivid images the poem portrays. Thirdly, I sincerely wish I’d written it myself.

  8. Wic E. Ruse Blade

    The ironic setting, as if it came right out of RLS’s “Treasure Island”, tied to the present, and the invocation of the mermaids, via the Eliotic quotation, are neatly done, in what Ms. Bryant accurately labels a “sumptuous array”; however, rather than Woolf’s “Orlando”, the trochaic tetrameters reminded me more of swashbuckling Errol Flynn films.

  9. C.B. Anderson


    I shudder to think of what I would be reading if you ever decided to write a poem on the life of C.B. Anderson. Your rhymes are so accurate and so apposite that they almost seem to be echoes of one another. And your tetrameter lines set up a spanking pace as slick as a Vaseline machine gun.

  10. David Whippman

    Great twist in the last line. The rest of the poem was very evocative; we all remember the fascination of pirate stories when we are children (and into adulthood.) I could almost hear the soundtrack from those Errol Flynn movies! Well written.

  11. David Watt

    You really get your money’s worth from this poem. The language is delicious and it is a pleasure to read the flowing lines.

  12. Joe Tessitore

    Days later, and this truly exceptional poem refuses to leave me be. Small wonder!

    The music, the story-telling, the dancing across the stage of time are here at the highest level and are seamlessly, effortlessly, and brilliantly woven together – a jewel that sparkles from its every aspect.
    Any of the greats would have been thrilled to call it his or her own and would have recognized it instantly for the masterpiece that it is, even before they laid down their pen.

    What a gift, Joseph, and one that you’ve clearly earned.
    Praise Him who gives.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Joseph T., many thanks. I wrote the poem over ten years ago, when Somali piracy was more in the news than it is today. One point: I chose the mermaids as the addressees not just because of the line from T.S. Eliot, but because in traditional sea-lore mermaids are harbingers of bad luck, catastrophe, and misfortune.

  13. Rob Crisell

    Really enjoyable poem. I enjoy that the mermaids are addressed as though they are the poet’s dark muses.

  14. Joe Tessitore

    Over ten years ago?
    I thought you were writing about the pirates of today and their
    “Outrage and unholy lust,
    Perjured oaths and broken
    trust … “
    See how your poem dances across the stage of time!

    I just came up with a first line that I’m gonna send to Evan and suggest that he open it up to the Society:

    “My country used to be…”


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