Waccamaw
NOTICE: You are currently viewing an ARCHIVED version of the Waccamaw. Visit the redesigned site.

Holy Island

                                    Lesley Jenike


          After Benjamin Britten, composer, and Peter Pears, tenor

We’ll dock this hulk someday. Leeward, the land
          blanketed itself in fog as our Swedish cargo ship
loaded us like coal or wood (some contraband)

         and steamed us for home, but home’s a drip, a spit
of dirt in the North Atlantic. Peter stalks the deck,
         so thin, I think, he’s keen to fly. The sharp black tip

of a wing is like a quarter note, he says, a wreck
         of himself since we quit the dock, Liberty and all
New York’s towers whose eyes/windows fleck

         the light, too busy climbing and grasping to call
goodbye. Our ship is an island, Peter, implied,
         a holy island—whether, as people say, in thrall

to us, or like a goose, snow on its wing, tied
         to its nest out of instinct—somehow it keeps
steaming across the sea. I take it in stride,

         let my heart be like the Swede’s who sweeps
his little broom in the engine room: blond
         and comical. Meanwhile the air, rife in beeps

that mean Axis submarines, frightens the song
         right out of me. I cling to the galley table,
hum my way back, if I can, to summer’s long

         nights unwound like newsreel, Auden’s fable,
my music, the pixilated pictures of post trains
         hurtling through England, pasted in mailing label,

their cars heavy with dead letters for dead lanes
         in dead villages, dead windows in the skulls
of dead buildings. Maybe it’s better now to feign

         a love of ocean and live here while Peter culls
from the waves a new method for breathing,
         to live here now in the now, to not let the lull

of engine and swell abandon me from thinking
         I may very well be a fisherman anonymous
in my salt aura on the quarter deck leaning

         like a rake. Whatever they say about my animus
and my art, whatever they say home or abroad—
         though which is which I don’t know—stings us,

Peter and me. But it’s in the sea’s crib, roughshod,
         with the Axel Johnson’s funnel on fire, lit by stars,
and with trouble in the water, that we leave God

         to the albatross off Nova Scotia’s frozen, far,
blue-black coast, and build ourselves another—
         who is transitory—adored in the vernacular,

who’s small enough to fit the hold, no landlubber,
         but a real ocean-going god, boy-faced and fair,
abandoned on some holy island somewhere

         by his roving parents, the sea and sky. What share
of the world is ours, I leave up to God. Could be
         a half-mile rock broken through water like a tear

in the gum by a rogue tooth, bursting into being
         then stuck there. Peter is the instrument and I
am the music maker. This fact explains, maybe,

         his nerves, how fragile, and why he’s liable to lie
on his bunk all day, a hot towel on his throat
         while I sit up writing: a tune for St. Cecilia—my tie

to Auden—a score for Peter Grimes whose boat
         is a crime scene, and lastly a series of carols
from a book of poems got in Halifax: an antidote
       
         to all those slow days hugging the coast, barrels
of Kentucky bourbon about me, and the clatter
         of workmanlike sailors working at some parallel

symphony. It’s spring now in Europe, shattered
         as it is by war, but we can’t feel it. All around,
the slate of winter, its monotony like a letter

         undeliverable, writer and receiver unfound,
the holy island a smattering of thought chilled
         by a gone sun, and April’s ship run aground,

spring’s payload split apart and cold killed
         by ice. The holy island is too bitter in love,
but we at least have its shelter now, thrilled

         by the sort of humming it makes in the dove-
cote of our ears. The war can’t touch us here;
         the future can’t, nor can the past’s hard shove

like bergs against its bow. In the hull we’re
         safe to gift our bodies to each other, Peter,
and what’s brief is beautiful. Let’s disappear.


Copyright 2017 Waccamaw. All reprint rights reserved by authors.