In This Island

By MICHAEL JOYCE

In this island human corpses are not buried and do not putrify, 
    

    but are placed in the open and remain without corruption.

Here men see with some wonder and recognize their grandfathers,
           

           great-grandfathers, great-great-grandfathers, 
                      

                       and a long line of ancestors.
   

     —Topographia Hiberniae, Giraldus Cambrensis (1220)

 

I have seen them in other guises, in dreams or along wind-blown streets here and across the sea

where they go by with a nod or sometimes not, benign or monstrous, familiar passers-by

and now it is I who pass before them where they recline, still upon the rain-polished limestone,

each in his own bed, a slab of congealed shore from the Carboniferous tropic sea

that covered this place before either the continents or time took their present shape.

Palm trees no longer sway pleasantly here in these gales nor does the sun warm these

                  ancient bones,

even the most recent generations of whom are cold in repose and grey as the stone they lie upon.

Yet in truth their eyes seem serene, as if lidded over by a scrim carved  from travertine

rather than incorruptible flesh, which when I reach to touch one lid seems silken,

though I feel the still-firm spherule roll beneath like the pulp of an overripe plum and

                       want to flee

from my own grandfather, for it is he, Pop, who with a shock I recognize lies beneath my touch

and in a panic turn back thinking I have somehow gone past my own father among these

                       ancestral rows

though clearly some other sequence than time applies here—look or túath, tribe

                       or countenance;

thus how they are set out here isn’t clear to me, nor does it matter really, my father’s

                       father’s father

or his father’s father’s father before him, who are these to me if not my brothers now,

my own two sons or centuries of strangers, it’s all one, seeing them so arrayed

as far as the eye can see, rows of sleepers shaping themselves along hills interspersed with allées.

At this scale the intimacy between us transcends the silence we share now so it isn’t necessary

                       to speak

and in any case the wind would snatch the words away mixing them with the screech of gulls

upon the multiplying waves of the single sea whose peaks and troughs the interruption

                       of this island

hardly troubles. So constant are the water’s perturbations that from a distance you could

                       think it smooth,

the lace of foam lapsing to a single opalescent surface, the island itself a nacreous fault

                       like a pale comma

upon the goddess’s fingernail. Despite all this, obstinately I whisper a litany of all the names

                       I can remember

then still more which come to me in speaking them, the names repeating like the waves

                       upon my lips.

Although it is a list of fathers I summon, their consorts are indifferent, for these names are

                       their own as well,

everything being shared here, every being one part of the endless division of one into one,

                       one death,

one sea, one name, one mother, one time, time all one, nothing lost to us except the end

                       of loss itself,

milky way lying over us in a smear of light until the moon rises and replaces it upon

                       the burnished stones

 

Michael Joyce has published poems in FOLLY (LA), Gatronomica, nor/, The Iowa Review, New Letters, Notre Dame Review, Parthenon West, Spoon River Review, New Review, OR (Otis Review), and THE SHOp (Cork).

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In This Island

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