Stonecoast Review Issue 5

From: Little Colloquium by the Sea

Written By: Ted Deppe

(Section 1 of a book-length poem included in Liminal Blue, Forthcoming from Arlen House in 2016)

 

                        “The sea is as near as we come to another world.”
                        –Anne Stevenson

Because in a former life
     I worked twenty years as a nurse
          and never saw anyone

nail their exit so perfectly,
     last summer, when my father
          stopped breathing,

I howled and laughed,
     both at once,
          a death so gentle:

ninety-one
     and living on his own
          terms till the end.

And later, seated on a plane
     across from a novelist I recognized
          from author photos,

I watched his total concentration,
     submerged in the creation
          of some world

I hope to enter someday, fingers
     coming down on the keyboard
          almost all at once like

some sort of weather that can dash and lift
     and console and break us
          with a single word.

               ~

After a month of conferences,
     we arrived home in Ireland
          and my wife led me

into the North Atlantic.
     How could I know
          our hearts wouldn’t stop

when we entered those icy
     waters? We splashed
          the cold onto our arms,

then chests, before the plunge.
     Having survived that
          I swim daily now,

late into the fall, preserving
     this space to somehow
          be with my father, though he

would have been the first
     to laugh, and I’m not sure
          how I could have explained.

               ~

Approaching the beach, I stopped and watched
     as a teenage girl, dignified and dreamlike
          in black, approached

the water’s edge and, surrounded by family,
     did her best to offer a box of ashes
          to the sea. More powdery bone

fell on stones than water, but the tide
     would gather it all. A man
          who must have been her father.

Three boys who could be brothers. And a seal
     that appeared a short way out
          and gazed at them

until the family left. Finally,
     I entered the water,
          which was like continuing

the conversation with my father
     at the same place we’d left off.
          Life first stirred there,

but those autumn seas would kill me
     if I stayed too long. And the seal
          appeared again, sunlight on its slick

gray dream of a face, round black eyes
     looking at me from that world
          I could only visit briefly.

               ~

Our neighbor says I’ll be able to swim
     all winter since I started in August,
          as long as I go in daily.

Wasn’t it his father who said he could lift
     a three-year-old bull above his head
          if he started with a calf

and followed through each day?
     Then first thing every morning
          didn’t he do just that? And could he

really lift the bull? Oh, we’ll never know,
     our neighbor says. My father
          strained his back and had to quit.

               ~

From a distance I can never bridge
     a seal blows air out its nose three times
          then tucks its head into the water

and with a roll its body follows.
     Like Elizabeth Bishop
          and her seal in “At the Fishhouses,”

I’m becoming a believer
     in total immersion.
          I swim out to where the seal was

and find myself circled
     by snowy mountains, islands
          and the open sea.

Icy water makes sure I know
     I am here, now,
          never more present in the moment.

               ~

Memorizing “At the Fishhouses”
     leads me to a photograph of Bishop’s
          childhood home in Nova Scotia,

then a map locating Great Village,
     and I realize that decades ago,
          before the toll road was built,

our family must have driven
     right past her house
          en route to Cape Breton.

I find an online video clip
     of someone driving through Great Village,
          noting each landmark — There’s

the one-lane bridge…that’s Wilson’s
     gas station. Bishop’s house
          doesn’t get a mention,

but I recognize it from the photo,
     right across from Wilson’s,
          and I’m so absorbed

in Bishop’s world that when I get up
     to make tea I think at first
          I’m in Nova Scotia, in her kitchen,

and have to look about to place myself.
     Strange rush of confusion
          and contentment,

this total immersion in the there and gone.
     Who’d want always to be only
          in the present moment?

Ted Deppe is the author of five books of poems.  A sixth book, Liminal Blue, will be published in Ireland in 2016 by Arlen House. A recipient of two grants from the NEA and a Pushcart Prize, Ted has taught creative writing in graduate programs in the U.S., Ireland, and England.

He is on the faculty of the Stonecoast MFA program and directs Stonecoast in Ireland. He and his wife, poet Annie Deppe, are dual U.S. and Irish citizens and since 2000 have lived for the most part on the west coast of Ireland.