A Day on Inisheer
What would it be to live
on this island of rock, licked
by salt and luck, where the wind
blows east and the monks pray
west, the rest of the Gaelic folk
layer seaweed and sand
between leeward sides of rock
walls and rain falls on no
trees, soaks the homemade soil
over years so some grasses
can grow for the sheep who stare
out to sea. This stone doorway frames
the sky and sea and someone’s patch
of green held by another wall of stone.
Here, everything needs a crack,
a corner, a gryke to take hold—
what lives in crevices is what lives.
What is limestone but solid sea—crushed
bodies of coral and clams, the karst land
soluble in water, sea melting back
to sea. And me? Gone three generations
here, I bring the usual hunger
for history. There are many of us
wandering this draft of grief
for bones and names in the land—
I find nothing here but tenacity
on a windy rock with no trees,
no place but stones to protect
from the constant sea.
No wonder when selkies
peeled and hid their thick black
skins, they longed to go
back, to slip beneath the waves
and into the liquid grace of seals.
But only here on these burrens of stone
scraped raw by glacial ice, blue arctic
gentian in grykes next to red clover
and saxifrage—cracks with gardens
that travel and take hold—only here—
together from mountain top and sea.
A Thin Line
Once, I saw a river of bats
stream like black confetti over my head,
fan out across the valley,
wing and swerve to swallow mosquitos
in their thin throats. Imagine:
their winged hands in the dark air,
their nipples and warm bellies and tiny shouts
bouncing back the geometry
of moth wings in an ocean of night.
I have a friend who placed them side by side—
two skulls meticulously cleaned: wolf and bat—
the same slide down the nose, hollowed caves
for eyes, even those curved canine teeth.
Almost identical except one was tiny,
one could be crushed to crumbs
between two fingers. He set them on his table
made of black stone with fossils
spiraled like shooting stars. We crouched
on the floor, eye to eye, to see.
There’s not much between us
on the sinewy earth. The sky
is an eggshell that keeps us warm.
Things repeat themselves—and then startle
in their newness, the way bones are
rivers for awhile, and then become river
beds with curves and sockets
where life pooled and chewed.
Memory, too, circles back, the thick
resting weight of your hands on me
like a bat wraps her shawl of wings
around the warm planet of her pulsing heart,
the ice-light of stars a breath away.
The Way Things Sync Their Light
Fireflies in the dogwoods,
I’ve heard, call to each other in constellations
of blinks and resting waves of dark.
Or when aspen leaves give up their green
in one yellow sweep up the mountain.
We could learn a lot if we surrender
our names, watch as the first sandhill
crane shifts and stretches a wing that
becomes a thunder of rising and rolling
cries, wings slapping the contoured air.
A sound like that can rearrange
whichever particular death
you are speaking to.
We study intelligence in brains
while murmurations of fish swarm
the salt water current, rising up
the pylons under the dock as the moon
pulls. We know these things—bees
dancing maps of nectar, mycelial nets
dreaming between trees. Even cows
still turn along the earth’s magnetic lines.
There are jars of peaches in the cellar,
yellow leaves dot the black earth.
Light is swallowed and given
back. But I want to talk about
what comes after: the slip into sleep,
the air in the woods when the fireflies go
dark, the way my dead loved ones blow
through me this morning—all at once,
like they’re holding hands.
On the same stretch of road before the bridge,
before the tide seeps in, turns road to river,
before the tide drains out to crackling sedge and fiddler crabs,
she sets her tripod in the mudflats on the edge,
photographs those pools that emerge as eyes,
watching reeling clouds, a scissoring hawk, the turn
of hours in the sky. She bundles up for this
in every season—the salt marsh muted
in snow and slate-grey sky, summer’s sleepy
shock of green, fall burning in rust and reds,
and under the pools or washed up on the sand,
gleaming like gladiator helmets, those ancient
living fossils, horseshoe crabs with ten eyes
on their backs, hitched with barnacles and flags
of seaweed, vacuuming the sea floor to feed
their blue blood, their tails that mark the earth’s
spin to light and dark before fish had jaws
and plants had flowers and the land was filled with
a great mass of green that would become the fuel
for our brilliant speed and hunger. It’s a strange
time to be human. Oh, love song, oh witness,
those circles edged in salt grass, each spin,
each tide, we wait for those pools to emerge
as eyes, the horseshoe crabs invisible
under that reflected tossing sky.
Read more poetry by Anne Haven McDonnell appearing in Terrain.org: 5th Annual Poetry Contest winning poems and two other poems.
Photo of pool by Jennifer Moller.