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July 2017, vol 13 no 2

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Jonathan McKeown


Make thee an ark of gopher wood …
                                  – Genesis 6: 14

Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind
                                                                                 – John Donne[i]

Something has shifted. The tide has turned. Each time I look up, – over blurry rims of my reading glasses, imperceptibly, more jagged rocks have appeared. As if growing from the soft-skinned sand, rugged shoulders slowly rise, wrapped in matted furs of wrack, bedraggled, bladder-beaded rosaries, entangled, broken, strewn about, among – wearing stony expressions like faces forged in the long nightmare of history. Just beyond a crooked line of shivering pools, another scrum of waves packs down, spume-crested, curve-backed, sand-hauling; a great unfathomable mother withdraws.

jenny wren watching waves through dune grass

I am nestled at the sandy foot of a precipice off Melville Point, reading. This is not Cape Cod, and I am only holidaying here. But against the many voices and soughing surf and wind I have lashed myself to the mast of Thoreau. It is a stoic tone in which he describes the scene: the wreckage of the brig St John, from Galway, in Ireland – laden as it had been with emigrants (fleeing, I gather, the great potato famine, since the year, he tells us, was 1849): the sight of the rough wooden boxes on the beach and the people of Cohasset coming and going, dealing with the business. In an age of aeronautics and GPS technology, such vivid episodes would be lost in Lethean depths were it not for shipwrights like Thoreau: a vessel like Cape Cod can bear one back across a sea of time: the “many marble feet” he witnessed, or “the coiled-up wreck of a human hulk, gashed by the rocks or fishes … with wide-open and staring eyes, yet lustreless, dead-lights.” “Sometimes there were two or more children, or a parent and a child, in the same box, and on the lid would perhaps be written with red chalk, ‘Bridget such-a-one, and sister’s child’” – the full significance of the red inscription he discovered afterward: “I have since heard … that a woman who had come over before, but had left her infant behind for her sister to bring, came and saw in one [coffin], – probably the one whose superscription I have quoted, – her child in her sister’s arms, as if the sister had meant to be found thus; and within three days after, the mother died from the effect of that sight.”[ii]

From this woman’s despair I look up again, allowing it time to sink in: A lone gull – cruciform, wind-buoyed, head hung, – wings a low wafty way above the spray, beneath the sun.

strange star hiding every night behind another day

headland monument
the roots this rust-scabbed anchor
has ploughed among

[i] From Meditation XVII, in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.
[ii] From the chapter, “The Shipwreck” in Cape Cod, by Henry David Thoreau.