We found a thousand hollow shells left scattered
Among the rocky, kelp-strewn teeth of shore:
Some of the seeping, tight-lipped hunks were shattered,
Tossed up by chance and left as dried decor
For tourists like myself to stow away
In pockets, as a keep-sake of their day.
Behind me, crumbling stones from old house walls—
Whose denizens died gaunt and childless,
The cattle staring listless from their stalls—
Lie, too, as if with nothing to confess.
Here, among sand and stone and history,
Lay broken shells from whom integrity
And fullness have been crushed such that each shard
Grows iridescent in the tide and sun;
Though life is weak, it hostels in what’s hard.
I notice all this as I pick up one,
Its slow, un-minded growth preserved as rings
Of calcite, unconcerned with what time brings.
Others have thought that they could take shells for
Their beauty, worn by wind and waters, stripped
Of use and freed completely from the score
Of beak or cracking stone. Their fragments, clipped
From life which slowly grows its pearl, make chimes
On ends of strings, or lines, as strangers’ rhymes.
A dozen times—I have lost count—I’ve turned
To this or that girl on my arm to call
Her the proverbial pearl—that is, the earned
And definite prize to whom I am in thrall,
As if all thought and purpose came from her
Whose face will be, in six months’ time, a blur.
But this one with me now will surely last,
I tell myself, and turn to her in pride
At her slim waist, full breasts, and that pale mast
Of neck, the soft flesh meshing with my side.
At night, she reads our travel guide aloud,
While I imagine us amid a crowd
Of pilgrims scrambling up some rubble hill
Or listening as a street player tunes her harp.
She does this hoping each sight will distil
In memory, meaning and details kept sharp.
So would I hold her voice and form in thought,
Though I sensed some break coming when we fought,
Three nights ago, and she saw that my hand
Was like that of a desperate thief who’d snag,
On leaving, things he’ll never understand
But all the same stuffs in his duffle bag.
All I’d admired in figure, words, and head
Seemed, then, just one more tour site visited.
But, here we are, amid a wreck of shells
And houses whose slow, crumbling ruin tells
More of time’s lies and hurt than even it could
When fishermen and their families still worked here.
That wreck and waste is something understood,
As we sense a reversal coming near,
Much like the news reports, when it was shown,
Years ago, that this country had been blind
To the particular sufferings of its own
For all supposed benevolence of mind,
When here, in Kerry, bodies of drowned souls,
Anonymous infants, cast up on the shoals.
Republished with gracious permission of Alabama Literary Review.
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Editor’s Note: This is the final poem in a collection of six called On the Shoals. The featured image is a photograph of the Valentia river At Mannix Point, Caherciveen County Kerry, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.