Empress of Ireland

15 May 2002 Pre-Rimouski 109.jpg

Photo: Museum and Monument to the Empress of Ireland, Pointe-au Père, PQ.

M Press of Ire

 Background and Dedication

The poems that have come together to form the M Press of Ire were begun in Ste. Luce-sur-mer, Quebec, in May 2002.

It was off shore from Ste. Luce, in the early hours of the morning of the 29th of May, 1914, that the Empress of Ireland collided with a Norwegian collier whose bows had been strengthened for ice-breaking. There were approximately 15 minutes between the moment of impact (1:55 am) and the moment the ship caught on fire and sank (2:10 am). Although the disaster has received little international attention, more passengers were lost in this incident (840) than in the loss of the Titanic (832) or of the Lusitania (791).

I read these poems, for the first time, at the University of St. Thomas at Houston, Texas. The Virginia Tech shootings took place on Monday, 16 April, 2007, and I read these poems on Wednesday, 18, April, 2007, while memorial services were taking place on university campuses all over North America. I dedicated that reading to the victims and survivors of the shootings. I now re-dedicate these words to all those who have been touched by sudden loss, shock, and / or grief, and especially to those who have suffered loss under extraordinary circumstances.

Introduction

I first heard those voices in the cries of the sea birds on the beach at Ste. Luce.

Borne on the wind, over the sigh of the waves, they seemed high-pitched, like the voices of children, or of men and women in distress. These were lost voices, the cries of people alone and frightened by the dark. I heard them calling to me.

That night, there were knocks at my cabin door and finger nails scratched at my window. Tiny sounds, almost beyond the range of human hearing: the snuffling of puppies when they turn over in their sleep and tug at each other, whimpering in their dreams.

“Who’s there?”

I started from my sleep. But there was only the wind and the waves as the tide’s footsteps climbed a moonbeam path to ascend the beach. When I walked on the sand next day, at low tide, there was a whispering behind my back. Little voices crying to be set free.

“Who’s there?”

A lone gull flew past my head and battered itself against the wind’s cage with outraged sturdy wings. That night, the mist descended. The church stepped in and out of its darkness and shadows gathered, persistent, at my door.

I walked out into the night and I saw a lone heron mobbed by gulls. It was as if an adult, surrounded by clamoring children, was standing guard over the beach. Then I saw the shadows of little children searching for their parents, the shapes of mothers and fathers looking for their off-spring, lost in the tide mark, among the seaweed and the grains of sand.

Beyond them, on the headland, the church stood tall above the shadows. I saw family survivors, their lips moving in supplication, kneeling before the granite cross that stands above the sea. As I approached, they turned to me, opened their mouths, mouthed silent words, then disappeared.

When I went back to bed, faces and voices visited me in my dreams. When I got up next morning, they came to me in the speech of birds hidden in the foliage, in the words dropped by the osprey’s wing, in the click of the crab’s claw as he dug himself deeper into the sand.

“Release us! Speak for us! Set us free!”

The words of the Empress of Ireland are not my words. They could never be my words. Foundered words, they are, rescued from the beach, and dragged from the high tide mark filled with its sea weed, carapace, charred wood, old rusted iron, and bright bone of long dead creatures polished by the relentless action of wind, sea, and sand.

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