Across from Nautilus Island,
where the dowager heiress lives on
(May her light increase),
Dyce Head Light beams out sharp codes,
warning some ghostly frigate
foundering off course to the taut acre
where the forgotten war dead lie,
engraving the air with the bony
breath of their stories.
They once moored here,
near the barn where the lonely ghost
of the wrecked Robert Lowell still broods,
his shivering madness mapping the town
from School Street to the Academy
as nightly a Persian youth plays the cello.
On this curving reach of rock the Puritan fathers set down,
their manic quest for sin
searing the land, burning off
the old lexicon until new words burst
from the unsuspecting faucets of the neat town
and the village sign read Pax.
Beyond the tide pools’ reach,
a holy trinity of dead she’s,
the three Marys, set out to sea
as contrary winds sweep the meadows,
scattering the torn bodies of dandelions,
weightless across the waters.
How did she die?
By her own hand.
What of the celestial bodies?
as circumnavigating the bay,
she broke upon the shoals.
What plant life is there to feed her?
She fills up on sea air.
A cantankerous wind
raging in her belly,
she dances on the shore,
where rocks plunge darkly.
What failed her that night,
The keeper or the light?
rang out the hours.
And the other Mary,
bludgeoned to death
on a northern shore,
its obelisks ungendered by ice?
The flying doctor came,
so the Inuit tell it,
in a high, silver boat,
left as a bird would, on wings.
Where is the scalpel?
Where the blade?
The sharp instruments
of salvation abandoned,
she faded into the whiteness
of tundra, sky
as the bleak mists of winter
veiled the rising stars,
the deep fog of summer
obscured the pulsing lights,
beating like blood in the northern sky.
Another breath lost to the arctic air.
One more Mary drowned
sailing the Persian Gulf
in search of her Majnun
called up to war.
She circled twice,
set her course for shore
before her marked craft
entered enemy waters, exploded.
Trace the arc of a great circle to chart your course,
The long way ‘round is the quickest way home.
The clipper ship navigates the Cape of Good Hope,
crosses the Indian Ocean, sails the Straits of Sunda
to the Middle Kingdom, laden with silk, tea, rice,
slips miles off the voyage, sails the Horn for home.
In high latitudes, winds whip the mast, wrestle it seaward.
It bends in prayer, currents confound, rain unnerves.
Still, it’s worth it for a course five hundred miles or more,
from Castine to the West Indies with shooks, shingles, spars,
back home swathed in sweetness, scent. Sugar, coffee, molasses.
But for the salt cod run up to Baie des Chaleurs,
determine the true celestial azimuth. Plot your line
of position, then give yourself to the rain.
The ocean calls, waves of utterance surge,
the moon unhinges the tides. There is no place
to flee to save the eyes of the stars.
Look how the celestial bodies chart their own selfless course,
the firmament unveils a new geometry of light.
See how the stars explode, each beaming its brightness
on earth’s blank face until the rocks, urged to speech
by the sight, give voice to the night.
The nautical line, poetic line, fishing line, Cat’s Cradle,
the game of Hangman played by the daughters of the town?
In garden design, the master gardener explains, the line
is boring. Use a rectangle, even a circle, to unify
the pattern, round out the idea so the mantra chosen
circumambulates the place of adoration.
There are no rules, she said, just good judgement.
The line makes it move, the line makes it stop.
Circles unfold. Nineteen concentric ones resound.
Once laid out, you can plant, transplant,
but watch for invasives.
Avoid pruning sins, such as loping off the branch
below the collar. That’s asking for infection.
An old standby, crab-apples may be best.
Who knows what birds they’ll bring?
Ordinary but reliable, there’s a whole book of lilacs,
Japanese, Chinese, Common. Only ten days you have them,
then they’re gone, the memory blooming on the threshold of your
summer house by the sea. Yes, by the sea a simple garden is best.
Consider foliage. And flowers. How each living thing, being equally
holy, is bound to evolve, dissolve, consumed by wind and water.
Putting into harbour south, in Nantucket,
to feast on lobster then purge. Hungry
to study stars already extinct. Setting out
next morning for the wake, a distant harbour.
Behold the far stars, sweet constellations of our youth,
the Bull, the Twins setting over Ireland’s distant shore,
where you longed to steer the burdened craft of your days.
Yeats, Synge, Joyce, all swallowed whole by the leviathan,
spewed out, pearls on the mistaken strand. Your Finnegan
kept vigil until night shunned the melody of his flute. Morning
came and you swam with him, silkie-like, far out to sea.
They heard you singing, called to you but you didn’t listen
as the bells rang out the warning. Next morning, you floated
on the last wave in, belly up, hair netted with fishes.
Season of the Pleiades, spring comes.
Obscure cluster at the edge of the horizon,
Look how its lights intermingle with the whole
glorious structure. A constellation of wishes
fires the firmament.
Who does she wait for, this Mary?
Whose hand does she grasp as she counts
the hours, no daily bread to steady her,
just bulimic frenzy. Feast, famine, glut,
privation, measuring her portion
to the rhythm of the tides.
She weighs, parcels out each mouthful,
eating right down to the bones the way fish feed,
piranhas, sharks, on the bloated flesh of the drowned.
Those stars, she begins to think, will all come
If not for the older poet, her light reigns over the town,
her white clapboard house all New England, the wood stove,
the barn, the ancient tools of extraction
(the red pen, the blue pen, the pencil).
She knows the harbour at Castine, all its ghosts.
She presses the page hard, metaphors spin out into space,
light the March sky, become the polar star, constant.
If not for her, who would celebrate the moon as it rises,
solid, corporeal, on the town’s far horizon, over the golf-links,
where the deer graze at dusk?
Who would teach the dying art
of celestial navigation?
Bodiless, the passion of Christ eludes us.
His sacrifice, parsed and pieced together by priests,
stains the sky over Penobscot Bay. Is He not God?
Can He not call the waters to peace, if not walk on them?
But no sign is given. In the keeper’s yard, stretching
down to the sea, tourists stream, all curiosity, only to find
the land cut short along the abrupt coast,
the rocks, barren but for tide pools,
their trove of shells cast off by snails and clams,
sea algae ferning every which way, gone wild
with the hubris of its own fecundity.
Yes, there is the driftwood, if you can catch
a stray piece heaved up by sea onto the smooth
And the dead roots, wind-burnished,
ossified into something rich and strange?
Pull as pull can, such wood will not be moved,
rooted firmly in the daily eroding rock, gesturing
defiance. But even the wood of the holy rood
must die into dust and be reborn.
Rising now, metamorphosed not just changed,
the Star of the Magi migrates
to a middle country circled by mountains
of light, where each page, a corpus,
illuminates a footpath upward
into the rarefaction
Listen to how Thomas Campion’s cherries ripened on the tree out back,
overshadowing the grape-vine our grandfather planted and pruned
incognito in his beekeeper’s dress, next to her acre-wide garden,
vegetables fringed by long rows of sensible flowers, zinnias,
black-eyed susans, daisies, perennials all, none demanding toil
or appreciation. Incorrigibly abundant, mildly aesthetic.
The beauty, profusion. The secret, bees.
At ten years old, I venture up into the cherry tree. Alone,
without a ladder. Just limbs to hoist me up the foremast.
Bing cherries not yet ripened by the sun, the bitter taste of
yellow flesh stings. I eat and eat, glutted with bitterness.
Cherry ripe, the flesh calls to me, unripe, unready,
not knowing its time.
Wrapped in a cloud of unknowing, I could not see the sea,
hear its lonely testimony, judge the stellar distances.
It was you who measured the parsec, set the course
windward, defied the eddying waters.
Now your covenant with the rock-bound coast
brings us here, where we wait for the incoming tide,
scuttling for a share of the ocean’s bounty.
Breathing. A given. But not for some.
How precise the well-patterned rhythm
of slight interruptions, heart-defying stops.
The wave breaks, the meditation resumes.
Who can claim the air? What lungs filled with holy water,
baptism of the threshold, can suck what a squirrel does
from the spring sky as it tests the branches, wings and leaps
in quest of nuts, with reckless agility, its ragged body beginning
to moult a little?
Summer will come and what joy there will be in the plenty.
Still it forages on, a tittering, social creature,
no thought of the labour of breath, while some
in this seaside village live mourning, rely
on nothing, not even air, for lungs betray.
The heart — let’s not speak of it — wavers,
pumped daily by fresh strategies for survival,
it takes nothing for granted, plunges deep
into forbidding waters, strikes out to meet
the keeper of light.
The Christ child is about six months old when we navigate
the longest day of the year. The most light shed on this coast
for months now, everyone says, no longer grumbling.
As if the curse of winter might not come again,
as if we will not suffer the long season of cold,
the aching in the bones, knowing it will all
unravel, despite budding crocuses and daffodils,
those gay, prescient flowers, the promise given,
long ago in the darkness, by the lover, of forever.
Look, someone approaches on a cloud. The sky ruptures,
eyes amaze to see how out of the corrupt body slips
not a son who bloodied his nose in a passion, but a girl,
eyes clouded with questions about the timing of this advent,
but ready to receive her name — Joy.
This is a time of celebration. Though the waves dash
the bodies of the missing against black rocks,
though they are lost at sea and always will be,
the summer solstice comes in perfect quietude.
The bell does not ring and the buoys marking
the dangerous shoals stop bobbing. It is Sunday,
the keeper’s day off, a time to be with the family,
up in the house, its windows no longer boarded up
Who will keep the light this night?
Suffice it to say, there is an arrangement.
The returning loons, the seals,
even the jabbering seagulls
do not speak of it.
Only the sea knows.
She cannot get over it, this Mary, how the age-old ritual
does seem to absolve sin. She offers full documentation,
utters the prayer, and, presto, it’s gone. It’s a daily requirement,
but she can find time. There’s not a lot to do anyway.
A few stray boats to salvage, a life to save, the keening.
It gets on her nerves sometimes, she’ll tell you. A few little
routines, no matter how humble, get her through the day.
She hopes her prayer, like a paper-thin cocoon, spins a life,
will open up with the warmth of her breath. She prays
the iron-clad words clanging in her head will rise up
with the moon one night, descend next morning, all manna.
Then she might eat and eat, not some stale crust passed
to her by the priest, but the bounty she catches each day
from the sea, the small glimmering fish of words silvering
her world as she keeps vigil by the shore.
Now the wake is over and the body buried, there is nothing left to do.
Even the maimed Ahab couldn’t resist its siren calling. The sea repeating
its plea, Come, come, come to me . . .
You lie squandered on these shoals, strapped to the broad belly
of the shore where the sea gasps and spits, expelling first the bones,
then the members, then the eyes, soul’s food, while inland on a river-bank
rocks the lisping canoe, all birch bark delicacy, waiting to ferry you silently,
only the dipping paddle to mar your meditation, back north along the routes
of the courier de bois, to a simple land, Elysium of meadow and forest,
where loon and the egret ponder the silence of a rock-bound lake,
the uncertain miracle of a garden.
In its perpetual severance from earth’s dark root, the tree somehow flourishes.
Millennia ago, the Buddha sat under this bodhi tree now flaming before us.
From where we coast far off shore, skimming the surface of uneasy waves,
this Sadratu’l-Muntahá appears much diminished. Comical almost, the size
of a bonzai, a quaint diminutive of the real thing, a reminder of how
too much cultivation contracts the soul until its compass embraces no
more than its solitary self. Now we approach ordinary time. The fasting
and feasting over, we nourish ourselves on a steady diet of sea kelp,
doused with tears. The mystery vanishes, the noble Pleiades retires
to another horizon. Some say the days of awe have ended. An accidental
jibe, we change course. Look how the light-unfolding days, tinged with
amazement, dawn, heralded by the sharp aroma of the lilac and the rose.
Listen how the strains of His cello inscribe the waves with light,
O My Friends! — the forgotten notes call you to the garden,
Remember? You lived here once in inconspicuous ecstasy,
Sowing, reaping, sowing, reaping.
Come forward, Holy Mariner. Do not delay.
Look how death’s shadow darkens the slippery deck.
How we sink down, down to the bottom of it all,
hold fast to the helm with what is left.
This is no time to trace the arc of transcendent hours.
All the world’s a metaphor, dimly obscure.
Through the glass of hours we see darkly.
Our eyes search shore.
So many lives, so many lessons,
when will we see You
face to face?
You say, My creatures are even as the fish of the deep.
Their life dependeth upon the water, and yet they remain
unaware of that which sustaineth their very existence.
Unmindful of water and its properties, blissfully swimming
through the portholes of the old wreck, a brotherhood of eel
presides over the harbour, cruising the ocean floor,
instinct-driven, alert to the turnings of dawn and dusk
and the prey tucked between them, gifts of the edible hours.
Though summer is come,
the heart’s eternal winter holds sway.
If I am to be undone by wind and water,
first let me count the forty waves and
plant them in my bower.
O Holy Mariner! Bid thine ark of eternity appear . . .
Launch it upon the ancient sea . . . Unmoor it, then,
that it may sail upon the ocean of glory . . .
Having reached the sacred strand, the shore of the crimson seas . . .
May know the mysteries hidden in the Seas of light . . .
Easy sailing is what she wishes for,
to swim like a fish but to soar on wings.
The cello strains of the sea serenade the moon,
draw its gravity earthward to the pulsing foam.
Allegro, crescendo crash on the shore. She hears
the descending notes, knows the terror of bird-bodied,
winged women. Witness their sudden whirlwinds, storms,
the agony of the blind, how the food of the sightless
is snatched from hands as waves beat out the refrain,
Aello, Ocypete; Aello, Ocypete . . .
Tonight who will escape the eddying waters off Nautilus Island?
The winged women, vultures all, descend. The ethereal body trapped
in Darwin’s soulless primates, hardy survivors, ears stopped by reason.
Who is left to hear the cello’s cry? Who will befriend the Persian Youth
standing alone on the shore?
Between the astrolabe and the Qiblih,
wrapped in the cloths of winter,
the rustic cake, baked haphazard
in the darkness of exile,
tasted not of sweetness but of salt,
the salt of tears, of the seas between home
and the place of landing,
where the ship, stilled at last,
spewed them ashore, all Jonah’d,
cloaked in mystery.
A chaste ringing, Tintinnabuli.
Cello calls them to the Sea Gate,
a gate so foul, six million birds fleeing
certain death, winged their way in haste
beyond the fading azure.
Night and a rock, its light beaming out
from shore, calling her to the sweet salvation
of the strand. A sand bar reaches out slender
fingers to bank her, but the mooring does not hold.
Sand shifts with the tide. Nothing can save her now.
Nothing calls her as she cries out to rock and wave.
The rock gives no reply. The blood of the risen Jesus
stains the rising tide, vanishes, subsumed by waves.
There is no place for anyone to flee to save My face.
And to the game of Hangman played nightly by the dowager
and her middle-aged son, bachelor-buttoned, chin shaven,
hands raw from rope burns, pulling the flaccid noose up,
still up until the razor’s edge of life is keenly felt,
pricking the skin like the burr-entangled fleece of sheep
grazing on top of the hill where the farm looks out over
the encroaching sea. She thinks Nautilus Island erodes,
sinks daily under the weight of water. She thinks the Mariner
has willed it so. The sea explodes, spews riddles like burning
magma on the shore. We are left fanning the cold-blooded
flame of a question: Who has dominion over the fishes
of the deep? Who holds sway over the sea?
One Mary climbs the Mount of Olives wrapped in a scarf
glittering like the golden calves of Israel. She hears
the call to prayer echo in the mosque’s empty courtyard.
She sees the bodhi tree shrivel, entangled by old growth.
The dance of Shiva contracts, hammered into trinkets.
She looks westward, to Highgate, where Marx lies,
discarded master of an unravelling age, haunted by
the rise and fall of dreams, then northward, past the
soot-blackened stone, to where a gilded eagle soars.
In its talons, a priceless pearl gleams, harvested
from ocean’s floor, born of twin surging seas.
Jasmine lingers in the air, and attar of rose,
as if all Persia stood waiting for some Madonna
to unseal ruby lips and step forth from stone,
A black-eyed Damsel.
In the Great Northern Cemetery, a border needs tending.
She takes up her spade and begins to dig.
Twilight settles over the garden of good and evil.
Rising out of the mist at dawn, the richness of loam,
a clean slate waiting to be inscribed with the poetry of trees,
flowers. Even the lowly shrub cries out. To be appointed
to the design is all it asks, beneath the lordly cypress.
No sins of omission here. Each unfolding leaf and bud
spans the arc of grace, enters into peace, secure. Sea turns
to sky, sky to earth, the firmament eclipsed by acres of
shrubbed stars, in concentric circles. A single olive tree,
some distant cousin of Gethsemane, gnarled and bent,
punctuates the path to the Qiblih with the knots and whorls
of holy utterance, the gems of wisdom engraved in the stoic
bark, betrayals unspoken. How the tree seems to look
on with the eye of God, nothing what is left undone
and filling the interstices with bird song.
the ship of fancy standeth still . . .