Letter from Swan’s Island

by Elizabeth Spires

The island’s dark tonight.
The radio crackles with static, news
of a blackout, the voice
coming through first loud, then soft,
as if a storm were moving
to cut all lifelines off. My one-room
cabin has a bed, a table, a chair.
Living this way, I understand better
that scene by an anonymous
illuminator: a row of monks
eating at a rough table, diagonals
of light slicing across the room
to fall, as if by accident,
on their simple meal. The black
and white tiles on the floor
a symbol of the formal repetitions
of the simplest life, or maybe
an oblique allusion to a paradox
of theology: the complementary nature
of good and evil. Is evil possible here
where everyone lives so individually
and nature appears to be neutral
toward everything but itself?
Some mornings I wake too suddenly,
the light on the wall
brilliant and unfamiliar, and wonder
for a moment, where am I?
I answer myself, my disembodied voice
high and far off
like what I imagine saints and martyrs
heard in moments of ecstasy: Swan’s Island.
Lightheaded, I rise, make coffee,
settling into the simple ceremony
of another morning. Outside the sea birds
pick the clam flats clean, fly off,
returning late in the afternoon
looking for more to scavenge.
Good days, I swim in the quarry,
sun myself on the rocks, and plan
a diary. One entry: I feel
this place to be a rough approximation
of heaven, the heaven of the lost …

But then I wonder if a diary
would be superfluous and put it off.

Days pass here, weeks slip away,
and even when it isn’t,
it seems to be Sunday,
irreal, subdued, the queer, slowed-down
feeling of late afternoon
spreading through the hours
of an entire day. Impersonal, yet benign,
the sun rains indiscriminately down
on everything, instead of singling out
particular objects, so that
even the rocks out by the tide line,
normally gray-brown, become heightened,
false, and I have to turn away.

Sometimes the lobstermen wave to me.
I must seem frivolous to them,
an outsider, with my pants rolled up
to the knees, standing knee-deep in water,
a shell or rock in my hands.
We have a code. I wave a white
handkerchief above my head,
they blow their foghorns back.
Once means the mail’s in,
twice, a storm by afternoon,
three times, the weather
will clear by evening.
But really, after a month
in a place like this, there’s no use
to wonder why the sea does this or that,
what time it is, or whether
the approaching storm will be a bad one.
If I think of anything here,
it’s the peculiar way
the sea gets into everything,
softening the crackers I seal
in an airtight jar, rotting the armchair
where I sit in the evening,
looking into the evening’s afterlight.
It smells peculiar, damp,
as if it had been tossed overboard
from a dory, thought better of,
and hastily retrieved.

I have a fantasy: to walk on water.
Not eastward, the Atlantic far out
scares me, but long, island-hopping
giant steps up and down
the coast the way as a child
I’d make my “two-legged” compass
walk the map. Walking to school
a thousand winter mornings,
I imagined each thought, each step,
an exercise in good and evil;
or, after confession, I’d cup
my hands around my breath,
saved for an hour, knowing I’d sin
again, the scars on my soul
whitening like the scars on my hands
where I burnt them on the stove.
Swan’s Island. A world
existing side by side with yours,
where love struggles to perfect
itself, and finally perfect,
finds it has no object.
The waking dream’s intact-
the world continues not to change,
and staying the same, changes us.
Elizabeth Spires, “Letter from Swan’s Island” from Swan’s Island (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1997). Copyright © 1985 by Elizabeth Spires. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: Swan’s Island (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1997)


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