redux: “all remnants of disaster”

Note: this post was from January, 2015. Five years ago, and I still keep my eye out for bones.


On our walk this morning, I stopped to take a couple of photographs of parts of a skeleton we first saw about this time last week. The remains of an elk, I’m pretty sure — I brought back two toes last week to clean and save and they’re larger than our Columbia blacktail deer toes. I looked for the skull but it wasn’t around, dragged off by a coyote, I bet. And this week some of the leg bones were also missing. I bent a little to take this shot —

P1110160— and had a sudden clear memory of seeing the ribcage of a cow or bullock on a grassy area above the water on the Irish island where I lived for a time in 1978.

I was 23 and in retreat from the life I’d lived in North America. I wanted something but I couldn’t have told you what. Well, I knew I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to test myself. I’d walk the island — it wasn’t big and there weren’t trees to block the view — and it seemed that everything asked to be noticed. The hedges of fuchsia, the children walking to and from the schoolhouse, the sound of their lessons from the open windows, a calf bawling for its mother, someone stacking turf (the bricks of peat which were cut and brought from mainland bogs as the island had no source of its own), the hum of a generator (no electricity either), a currach returning to the quay and men helping to untangle the nets and pots used for fishing, the frail notes of a tinwhistle from a doorway. I loved trips to the mainland when I’d tag along with someone rowing over in a currach, the wood-framed boats of the west of Ireland, covered with canvas (though with skins once).

inishbream image
This is how a currach was carried down to the water. It’s a wood-engraving by John DePol, made for my novella Inishbream.

The ribcage on the grass was like polished ivory and I sketched it, I remember. Later I saw a spine — from the same animal? I don’t know — and that made it into a poem:

The things I find I leave:
a great spine of a bullock
on the west beach
the shards of a tern’s egg.

Brought back 3 ribs
of a currach once
and dreamed all night
of storms and drowning

and when I burned them
in the morning
I saw the craft complete
itself in the flame.

There is nothing beyond here.
They tell me America lies west
and I have looked forever
beyond Slyne Head,

have seen only waves
bullying the fishermen,
have seen only a horizon
too far away for sailing.

All remnants of disaster
catch on these rocks:
there is shipwood, a lobster pot,
a strand of net, myself,

not buried or blessed
but given land underneath,
the sting of an iodine wind
telling us this might be home.

It’s a strange experience to read something written almost 40 years ago. I’m amused a little by the melodrama (I felt I was a remnant of disaster, having run away from unrequited love among other things, but was I really?) but also grateful for the unexpected connections that are often part of the process of writing. The bone frame of the bullock echoing the structure of the currach —

currach1-150x150— the lilt of the language, the gift of the word “craft” at that point in the poem as well as in my life.

When I saw the skeleton last week, it was because it was unexpected. (When you walk in the same place over time, your eyes readily see what’s different.) And I didn’t expect to be taken back to that grassy place just outside the cemetery on one of my solitary walks around the island’s circumference where the beautiful weathered ribs taught me something about writing and where several months later a currach took me on the first leg of my long journey home.

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