Poems by Marjorie Stelmach
And a Heart Two Thousand Years Forewarned
What father among you, if his son asks for bread,
would give him a stone, … Luke 11:11
Some days Doolin’s treacherous coast disguises itself
as flesh-colored foam. Other days rain slicks the rock
to an unmarked slate, or fog slides in like the ghost
of a glacier, and she knows to walk here is unwise.
But on warm summer mornings, the limestone slabs
sulk in the sun like bread dough kneaded and left to rise
from a metaphor sown two thousand years ago.
Before her eyes, stones lift from their bone-yard,
shift into alignment, link and hinge, take on the lineaments
of the human. Unwise, on such mornings even to witness.
Crossing this faithless landscape, her memories break
along fault lines of trespass: rooms barred at thresholds,
names unspoken, occasions when splinters of error skitter
like spit on the hot flat skillet of her misunderstanding:
year after year, someone dying in a quiet room adjacent
to her childhood, someone essential who now
will never love her. Ask of the past what you will: the answer
will be riddled with gaps—losses as durable as hunger.
And a heart forewarned.
Crossing the rubble-strewn coast this morning,
her eyes light first on a rugged Madonna,
next on a curled fetus, then
a hooded nun: a theme emerging?
Were he with her, he’d scan this landscape
seizing on skulls, spinal columns, shins.
How easily the burren breaks
along the fault lines of the human eye,
bulking into breast or buttock, blading
into scapula, clavicle, rib. And no,
he’s not with her. She has come alone
to stroll these Irish graveyards,
climb hillsides to shrines,
ride ferries to the wild outposts
of faith—to be sad for a time
she has promised will not be forever.
She knows it’s wrong,
this obsessive christening of stones,
this wish to keep for a few days more
a private watch over the absence
assigned her—nameless, like so much else
in this landscape. Tomorrow, she knows,
she’ll return with first light
to wander these rock-strewn fields—
but why? What made her think this barren coast
might ease her grief? She sees it’s only another
fault line of her vision—this belief
that a life can be ours to lead.
Compared to these ancient, enduring creatures,
in what way are we the living?
Not Far From Lisdoonvarna
Not far from Lisdoonvarna—famed wedding market
where farmers’ daughters were yearly brokered,
yoked to the moonscape fields of their fathers—
not far are the Green Holes of Doolin and the pier
where ferries dock for daily runs to the Aran Islands.
Above the docking, on lacework stone, goats
negotiate fissure and crevasse, alert to the crippling slip.
In wind-lapse, she hears the tide moan below her,
sucking and licking the tunnels and chutes,
and she feels it, the fact that she’s strolling the salt-eaten
slopes of a mountain. Of a sudden, her bones
The Green Holes of Doolin,
her guidebook claims, is a sunken honeycomb carved
from immense limestone slabs abandoned here
when the last ice age stopped and the first lichens
flattened themselves to the sun. For a million years,
from these caves the sea went on calling for blood
before blood had yet learned to pulse. Even now,
at the cliff base, the tide comes in brutal enough to stun
the mackerel. This is a sea too hard for the fish,
a land too hard for the plowing.
In Lisdoonvarna, it’s long understood that hard-faced
women come to the bargaining lashed to the stoniest
holdings—and always they prove entirely steadfast.
An ugly law: which is why she believes it completely.
As she believed the old man in the pub last night,
who called her a beauty and, kneeling in sawdust,
recited ballads from a memory seemingly flawless, seemingly
endless, until the barmaid led him away. He was weeping.
She senses there’s little negotiable here—each item
of daily living, a given: faith, history, her next Bailey’s,
marriage, enduring beauty.
Especially beauty. Lichens
have split and flowered the limestone with cadmium,
zinc, and amber lanterns—a light older than eyes, a beauty
predating beauty. Who could have guessed how,
over eons, the air would soften, the caustic gasses
bend to a shape lungs might accept in a bargain struck
for an ad hoc future. Struck and still holding. Witness
this three-legged dog that comes to the whistle
of a woman whose land they’ve agreed to go on
calling a farm for as long as it’s theirs to call. As for her,
in Lisdoonvarna—lacking a farm, a wily father, even
the words to the ancient ballads—she knows she has nothing
to barter with. Or to bargain for. Only her heart’s stubborn
hold on another shore she’s agreed to call home
and her faith in a man she knows to be steadfast. For him,
she’ll tread carefully here, where time is measured in eons,
peril and beauty go hand in hand to the bargaining block,
and no one would think, in a million years, to hide their weeping.
Death and the Three-legged Goat: a play in a single act
Stage Set: An abraded shore two thousand years old
where a brief withdrawal of ice and its sudden return
re-froze the sea inside sink holes and fissures and stunned
the scant grasses to a dense black cap that appears
soft and ashy, ready to crumble: the eyes are such fools.
To her touch, though, this stuff’s unyielding, welded onto the plain
like a black hair-shirt four inches thick that will not come off.
Scores of fossils emboss the boulders: lives impasto’d onto the stone
with a palette knife of sudden death. She tongues it, swallows:
Enter, on the cliff above: a three-legged goat.
Fifty feet up the cliff face, he pauses. Their gazes meet.
He bleats. She bleats back. They face each other armed
with clamor—maaaa and mehhh, wind-music, sea-whistle,
each engaged in a solitary pan-dance, risking breakage
on a broken shore riddled with whistle-slots and worm-holes,
he on shaggy shanks and hooves, she on her slim anklebones,
while beneath—fifty meters? fifty miles?—the Atlantic
rushes and riddles the world’s cold feet. She wonders,
can he even recall his crippling, his narrow escape?
She remembers a break of her own: an anklebone’s snap and
her gasp at the shock of so sudden a misunderstanding between
her flesh and the earth, then the stab of her every step
on the long hobble home. How long did it last for this goat—
a misstep, a single rock-manacled leg, a desperate testing
of the earth’s grip, the gathering urgencies: hunger, night,
a rising tide, and most, most, the screaming piece of his own flesh
tethering him to stone? Fear must have swiftly won out:
an immense, wresting twist. Could she have performed such an act?
Never. After her first futile screams, she’d have cast her mind
forward, rehearsing: the awful shred and blood of her tissues—
a tearing of sinews and crush of bone—and the dragging crawl
homeward. Then, the aftermath: a gruesome healing; a long
and diminished lifetime. A spool of horrific calculations,
over and over, as night fell and the tide rose. No, she is sure. No.
Exit: the three-legged goat, unnoticed.
Back on the stoney edge of the real world:
The goat, in his disgraceful coat of hanging shag
with its patches of orange and dirty-white,
has grown bored with their dance. Climbed higher?
Moved off? She has missed his departure.
In her time here, she has noticed a number
of three-legged dogs out on the roads or dancing the edges
of herds—working dogs. Maimed creatures, well-matched—
the three-legged dog, the three-legged goat.
Can there be, between them, even the dimmest of recognitions?
Unlikely. She shakes her head, it’s a hard, hard world.
She, too, should be turning back now, stepping carefully
over these treacherous rocks, before dusk’s shadows
begin to tangle and complicate the light. But she waits
and tongues it once more—hard life, sudden death,
and tries again to imagine herself as a woman equal, somehow,
to this world. She imagines herself, instead, in full dark.
Exit, pursued by the sea.
Skellig Michael: Walking the Mist
Mid-morning on the coastal rocks.
The fine beginnings of rain.
From this same shore
in another age, at the far Western edge
of the faith, a single abbot
and a dozen monks
brought to this rock
what God they could carry
in a wooden boat.
Skellig Michael, her guidebook reads:
eighteen miles out
in a hanging mist,
and—the locals will tell you—
walking the water.
There’s little evidence left now—
a faint smudge in the gray rain marking
a weathered ledge
where six beehive cells
stood seven hundred feet up the side
of the skellig.
like the twisted flesh of the god
insisted into the world
by that first abbot
with a burning gaze and a vision
seaworthy enough to steer
a dozen monks to this rock
Can it still be had—conviction enough
to last a lifetime?
A perilous lifetime,
short at best, lived five hundred years
after the fact—
the one fact that mattered—
but a way of life that endured on that rock
for a thousand years more in isolation,
And they called it Love.
But, who, after all, was there to love?
Only the one
perfect man on a cross, and somehow,
It must have been awful: a life spent
clinging to a wind-thrashed crag, as the earth
grew colder, the thin crops failed,
and the fear of a Viking attack attended
a man’s every climb—stooped, hooded,
in a salt-stiffened robe—
to a lookout alongside a grave-ground.
How un-sustaining to a man of flesh,
loving an absent savior,
while those who shared his vows grew older
and Christ grew younger
and younger. How daunting:
to wear at your belt a cross designed
for a god’s broken flesh.
And yet, that god’s silver flesh
hangs at her throat even now as she stands
on the cinder turn-off—
seagulls wheeling above her, screaming
for bread tossed from buses—
trying to see it as it was
back then, her guidebook gripped
in a hand unmarked by the hardship
of oars, her faith
untested, her only proof it ever existed
in the catch of longing she thought
years back for a lowercase love.
And yet, here she stands.
In the summer months, thirteen ships
make the run to Skellig Michael, but
her guidebook cautions:
The steep crumbling trail can be slick.
You climb at your peril. On shore,
the wind has picked up,
real rain is upon them. She can’t imagine
that peril, that courage. Her doubts
have had years to harden,
and all she can find of her own truth now
is this: that today Skellig Michael
is visibly walking
the mists—she’ll go that far.
And it won’t be enough.
Macbeth Act 2, scene 2
Just offshore in shallow waters, she spots a flock
of ocean-licked boulders, slick with the living,
and soon, in her salt-stiffened shoes, she’s hobbling
over a cobble of tiny, shelled flesh, pocketing treasures.
What she learns: it’s not only balance she lacks,
but fearlessness, focus.
Just now, a snail she’s imagined would make
a pretty trinket to slip in her pocket
turns out to be alive, and so tightly stuck
to its rock she can’t budge it,
barring great hurt to them both. Soaked,
she stumbles ashore empty handed.
Back on dry land, she finds she’s netted
more than she thought—
a Marco Polo load of loot: pollen blossoms
clogging her nails, ripe tresses of dulse,
mollusks like beads to stucco her shoes, skin
scraped from her palms where she caught herself
falling. Odors billow around her like skirts
dragged through eons of filth. She’s cloaked
in the odious crime of creation—
that primal murder of meaninglessness—
it’s all on her hands, on her knees, it will not
rinse off. Worse: saltwater burns.
What she has learned: to the sea’s mute history
of ransack and damage, her hurts add nothing.
Worse: she has no one to tell it to, this sad
little lesson–her story. Time to go home.
Sunday on the Rocks
Prayer and praxis are simply the inside and the outside of the same thing.
–Mercurius: The Marriage Of Heaven & Earth
A score of gulls, two score, more.
Hunger and pluck.
And half the time the weight’s too much,
or they lift a morsel
and a high wave rises to snatch it back.
Sunday: no rest for the greedy.
It’s afternoon down by Doolin Pier:
bottled water, horse race static, families
with sandwiches scattered
on the rocks.
A toddler stoops
to a sea-pummeled boulder, struck
by what treasure?
a frond of seaweed?
a fossil shell?
a twisted bit of rusted iron?
He leans for balance,
his slight weight pitched against the wind,
a fat bun untouched in his other hand.
But, oh, it’s Sunday,
and this is the work: to glean.
Wind takes everyone’s hair. An old man
peels his shirt and is terribly white.
Lovers sprawl on outcroppings. Kites
carve elegant shapes above the pier
where the Inisheer ferry will dock:
engines idling as tourists uncoil
down the plank—
bird-watchers, the young
with their backpacks.
Then, the whole enterprise
revving the engines, whistling for tourists,
coiling the ropes—and the ferry’s off.
lift our hearts.
Wind, turn us over.
Wash us in shadow,
toss us in light.
Spin us into a briefness
be the white
be the water
that does not wet
Let sun be gold—
as it always has been.
Let us wheel
with the world-wheel,
wise to the world’s
wicked and bold
in the ways of the winged,
the wave-toss and spun
by our own keeling pulse.
O, let it be Sunday.
Let us be lovers
of our own lives,
their personal hungers,
particular winds; of our own
swift spinning into this world
of the living,
and out again
into what comes.
Marjorie Stelmach is the author of five volumes of poetry, most recently, Falter (Cascade Books, 2017). Previous books include Without Angels (Mayapple), A History of Disappearance and Bent upon Light (Tampa). Recent work has appeared in Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Gettysburg Review, Image, Iowa Review, New Letters, and others. She is the 2016 recipient of the Chad Walsh Award from the Beloit Poetry Journal.