Empress: A Survivor Contemplates

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A Survivor Contemplates
the Crucifix on the Point
Ste. Luce-sur-mer

Christ of the Rocks
hanging here on the point
from the crucifix
with your open eyes:

do you see, out at sea,
where gray waves cover
the graveyard of the Empress,
at rest, her passengers,
caressed beneath shallow waters.

They have gone on before me,
those friends I numbered,
their piercing eyes
lie covered now.

Splayed toes:
last night’s footprints
erased by wind-blown
dust and sand.

 Dry crunch of skull and skeleton
crushed underfoot by sea boots
ascending, descending
the beach’s gentle slope.

Unknown,
these lands around me:
emitte lucem tuam /
send forth Thy light!

 Unexplored,
these mountains that surround me:
ipsa me deduxerunt /
such things have led me on.

 Unsolved,
these mysteries that confound me:
in montem sanctum tuum /
unto Thy holy hill …
in nomine Patris /
… in the name of the Father.

 I wander from grave to grave,
reading the headstones:
quare me repulisti? /
why hast Thou cast me off?

Coarse grass weaves bindweed
with columbines combining.

Incessant mourning of glove grey
morning doves,
drawing tears from dawn’s face:
quare tristis incedo? /
why do I go sorrowful?

 Verdant stems,
unsophisticated flowers,
weeds dark between stark
granite stones.

 Names!
Whose names?
My long lost brothers’ names,
Eric, Phillip, Peter,
not yet carved in stone:

 non in tabernacula tua /
not yet in Thy tabernacle.

 This churchyard,
will it always be
as steady as a headland
even in a storm?

 Here, the terrestrial
centre is stable:
quare tristis es, anima mea? /
why art thou sad, oh my soul?

 The ark on the waters
moves from side to side,
lulled by the sea waves,
up and down.

 On the altar,
a gilded chalice,far from the far flung
malice of the sea:
quare conturbas me? /
why dost thou disquiet me?

Empress: Graveyard on the Point

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Graveyard on the Point:
A Survivor Remembers his Catechism
Ste. Luce-sur-mer

The survivor at the cross roads,
wreathed in his personal storm:

et discerne causam meam /
… and distinguish my cause

de gente non sancta… /
from the unholy nation.

Rising waves:
bells on buoys
peal out sea warnings.

Tonight there is a grief across the grève.

Sa griffe / his claw,
ma griffe / my claw
homophonic puns

scratching at reality’s surface,
hiding inner meanings,
leaving the depths unplumbed.

Did he really paint
the reality of the shipwreck,
this Magritte?

 Cette pipe, qui n’est pas une pipe! /
This pipe which isn’t a pipe!

Mi grito que no es un grito! /
My cry which isn’t a cry!

Cette vie qui n’est plus une vie!
This life which is no longer a life!

This littoral bay
no longer a literal bay.

ab homine iniquo et doloso erue me /
from the unjust and deceitful man deliver me.

Over bird frosted rocks,
a ring billed gull cries out whose name
on its early journey to greet pale stars?

 On the beach at the cross’s foot,
a grey robed pilgrim

stands in dusk’s failing light.

et introibo ad altare Dei:
ad Deum, qui laetificat juventutem meam
/

and I will go unto the altar of God:
to God, who giveth joy to my youth.

Mouettes, göelands muets:
sea gulls, silent sea gulls:
white arrows shot over sea wet sand.

He stands solemn before this graven stone
waiting to be blessed:

 sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper /
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be …

The eider duck sigh for their siblings,
tossed from the crèche and lost
in the long low swirl of the sea.

Empress: A Survivor Lights a Candle

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A Survivor Lights a Candle
During the Latin Mass for the Dead
Before the Main Altar
at the Sanctuaire Sainte-Anne
Pointe-au-Père

I am afraid of fire:

 in principio erat verbum /
in the beginning was the word.

 I am afraid of the loud voice of the match
scratching its sudden flare,

narrowing my pupils,
enlarging the whites of my eyes:

 et lux in tenebris lucet /
and light shines in darkness.

Booming and blooming,
igniting the soul’s dark night.

Voice of fire:

et Deus erat verbum /
and the Word was God.

 Flourishing to nourishment,
flames whispering on the flood:

omnia per ipsum facta sunt /
all things were made by Him.

Wool and water,
this sodden safety blanket;
and what of the cold plush

of the pliant teddy bear,
the staring eyes of the doll:

et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt /
and the darkness comprehended it not.

The lashes of their eyes
bound together with salt water,

they were doused in a silken mist:

hic venit in testimonium /
this served as a witness.

 Still the patterns pierce my sleep,
hauling me from my opaque dreams,

holding my wrists in this sailor’s double clasp:

 non erat ille lux /
he was not the light.

Oh! Curse these dumb waters rising!

“Not a hair on your head
shall be harmed!” he said,
hauling my sister up by her hair

only to find her staring eyes
belonging to the already dead:

et mundus eam non cognovit /
and the world knew her not.

Night waters rising.

The moon raising
its pale thin lantern glow:

et vidimus gloriam ejus /
and we saw His glory

 shining forth
upon the waters’
mirrored face.

Dark Night of the Empress

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Dark Night of the Empress

 Her cooled lights drowning now,
fires subsiding, dying under rising waters.

Grit and river-bottom clog the dream:
eyes and mouths wide open, faces blurred.

 Seaweed: mermaid’s hair
drifting slowly before the eyes;

the cold tide sucking in at ankle and heel,
pulling them down.

 Celluloid fictions,
black and white films,
their mouths stretched in a silent scream.

What became of the photographers,
of the men and women who stood their ground
clicking their cameras in unison
as the ship went down?

News!
The air breaks apart:
delirious with dots and devious dashes.

 The lighthouse light goes round and round.

It points a finger of silence at the collier
looming silent through the mist.

What price the black pearl in the oyster?

 What price the nightmare,
cleanly wrapped in transparent plastic,
desperate fingers tearing the see-through
fabric from the face?

 Salt water dashed on mouth and lips,
this dream:
sharp bows, wet rocks, and a tugging tide.

Toys and boys and dolls and girls
and men and women,
their bodies disgorged untidily,
their useless limbs
flopping at the sea’s foamed edge.

 Last night,
mist shredded itself on the sea-cradled headland.

This morning, the spring tide is a gentle hand
erasing life’s autographs from the witnessing sand.

Silence after the storm:

a pocket full of posies
gathered into a dreamless sleep

they have all fallen down ….

Empress of Ireland

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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.