james matthew wilson

Innis mór

We scrambled up the craterous outcrop
That ruptured like an isle among gray sands
Spread thin around Cill Éinne Bay.  A sop
Of drying kelp lay tangled in red strands,
Half-covering a shallow pool, inside
Which a few trapped snails slinked till the next tide.

Some other aged and rough concentric shells
Hung from long weeds as necklaces might hang.
The mussels and the vast Atlantic swells
Lapping away at Innis mór then rang
Of my first time gone musseling in Bar Harbor:
Snatching the stony things in childish labor,

Not knowing such as these and snails were meant
To boil in the gray and white-flecked pot
Later that night, for dinner.  Shells—once sent
Adrift on every patterned current, sent
With cold indifference upon the tide
Breaking against this putty shore—abide

Or are marooned, I should say, in this pool
No more the ocean for its having come
From there.  Such shells are symbols of that rule
Which cast so many into exile, some
From Aran, Kerry, or to Maine, like me
Unsure of all responsibility,

But knowing the taste of spray upon the tongue
Is a sure sign that I am far from home.
These sharded terraces of lime are long
From the flat lands I know, and the wild foam
Coasting atop the blackened water’s roll
And endless siege on the Dún Aengus shoal.

These sediments, these thickening shells, their weight
Helpless and subject to the current’s shift,
Show though we be unrooted from all fate
Our being’s inflexibly one, a well-sealed gift.
As is the scene here, which I cannot take
Whole, but with my attentions seem to break.

Nor can I take this island’s paths’ full measure,
As if all were mere property of the mind.
My coming here may have been meant for pleasure,
But now it and my being have been twined
And bound, too, with that “awful” sun-bright day
When I dug mussels with my family.

As much I think I’ve known for many years,
That we’re both more and less than one might think;
The faithful voice betrays what the ear hears;
The eye sees into things, yet with a blink
Misses the glimmering surfaces of sand
As if it were like any other land.

So also with our own more certain being,
Which seems a cramped and drifting vessel, yet,
Goes out by thought and will, as if it were fleeing
From solitude and lived life desperate
To cast itself upon some certain law
Outside itself yet take it in its maw.

Some children calling out in Irish came
Tearing by, splashing through the silvered veins
Of water, pulsing, pulsing with its tame
But dominant advance, their little lanes
Lasting a moment with the stud of heel,
Then swallowed in the everlasting meal.

Such was I when I tried the sea-plucked meat,
Forced to down snail and mussel at the table,
As if the sea invaded my discrete
Self, though right there I proved myself unable
To keep it down, as it were, but gave it back
And with it my joy in Bar Harbor’s rocky rack.

There lies the limit to our openness,
Which gives and goes but balks at violations.
But I want to perceive, perhaps to bless
This island with its ruined, beauteous stations,
Till, through a plain and patient sort of trying,
My few words might report the real descrying

Of angled light that gives each pool its glare
And skips across the waves’ large-muscled toil,
To catch it as it is; and catch the bare
Gray hills whose barren crust of soil
Was deepened, made sufficient to till wheat
By the first immigrants, who in their sweat

Slow-piled sand and seaweed on the tops,
For years, till they grew fertile with the blend,
Then planted, by the fistful, their first crops,
And in a tottering way drew end to end.
They too, at first, were strangers to these sands,
But took them as their own with needful hands.

Republished with gracious permission of Modern Age.

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Editor’s Note: This is the third poem in a collection of six called On the Shoals. The featured image shows Central Inishmore from Dun Aengus, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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