The Innisfree Poetry Journal

by John Thomas Clark

Novelist Osbert Sitwell understood
Poetry to be like fish--if fresh, it was good,
He said. But if it was stale, it was bad,
And, he continued, if the poet had
No clue, the verser was advised to try
It on the cat. Now, Frank, our cat, will fly
At my approach, so who better to test
My rhymes on than the muse himself---the best
Service dog. Nipper at the gramophone
Was Lex.  On no finer house might I hone
My craft. And, yes, I did bring down that house;
For, as I read, my sonnets served to douse
Lex, sphinx him. Next, his head nestled on the floor,
His eyes flickered and closed and he began to snore.
(Note: Nipper at the gramophone was the trademark for RCA Victor, a dog listening to his master’s voice.  Douse means lower quickly.)

            For my mother, Margaret O’Connell Clark
When Grandda strung the birdline in the grove,
You doffed the cage’s hood. The captive shrove
His plight for all to hear. A green fellow drove
Down to the sound and was ensnared. You dove
Over the grey rock wall, scooped up the feathered trove
Lest it be hurt. You nursed him. No bird of Jove*
Received more nurturing care for he throve
In your tender hands.  As the tender wove
Through the white chop and palled harbor of Cobh*
You unhooded him for your eyes to rove
A last time over Ireland. The tender hove
To beside the ship. Soon, the Celtic’s* twin stove-
Pipe stacks belched black smoke and away from Cork
Sailed the bird and you to new life in New York.
As you and the bird sailed off for New York,
One last time, unhooding him, you let him quark*
His farewell to the home he’d never see
Again. At fifteen, what did you think as he
Finished his lament, there on the aft deck,
The sea breeze in your raven hair, foam-fleck
Upon your parian* face? Did you think
You’d see your parents again? On the brink
Of two worlds, adrift on a third, Roche’s Point
Receding from view, what did Life anoint
For you? Was some Ollapheist* lying in wait
To swallow your ship? Was your green shipmate
There, with you, an act of parental guile--
To take your mind off each passing sea mile?
To take your mind off each passing sea mile
You paced off the length and breadth of the ship
And thoughts of St Brendan* blossomed your smile,
Reassured you. If he survived the trip
To the New World so might you. Eighty wide,
Some seven hundred feet long, this dreadnaught,
Far larger than Brendan’s oak-ribbed, ox-hide
Curragh* of fifteen centuries past, in aught
One, was the largest ship afloat. Longer
Than the main street of your Shannonside town
It held many more people too. Stronger
Than a German mine, it would not go down
To foemen’s fish* or mid-sea collision,*
This one time flag of the White Star vision.
This one time flag of the White Star vision
Was seven days out, long past the fabled
Spot of Brendan’s Fair Isle* when it cabled
Ahead to New York of its decision
To try for Boston. You told your Brendan,
The warrior-monk in his sea chariot
Who halted and spoke for Iscariot*
On a mid-ocean rock, that the rend in
The boiler connected to propeller shaft
Number Two caused it to malfunction
And without his prayer, his extreme unction,
Your ship was a seven-hundred-foot raft;
St Brendan must have heard your exhort--
In two days the Celtic gasped into Boston port.
As The Celtic coughed, gasped through Boston port
You raised your eyes to The Navigator*
To thank him. The tugboat fleet at escort
Urged the Celtic past liner and freighter
Berthing her where a Customs cohort
Waited--a doctor, an interrogator,
Per passenger. A cough, gasp, a loud snort
Shanghaied many for the Decimater*
Back to Erin to drown in the contort
Of swamped lungs. To your mediator
You appealed for grace to help you comport
Yourself well enough. The imprimatur
Was granted. A thumbs-up trilled from the bird
At the most beautiful words you’d ever heard.
At the most beautiful words you’d ever heard
You grabbed up the cage, your trappings and blurred
Down the long quay. The Boston bustle whirred
Unseen in your flight to the port shepherd
Guiding his Celtic flock--your piston feet
A resonance of the frantic oar beat
Of Brendan’s monks facing a hail of heat,
Ash, and foul-smelling rocks in their retreat
From an Arctic isle. Your flock’s chatelain
Herded you to where a New York bound train
Waited, coughed and wheezed. In your seat, your brain
Feathered as Boston sights, sounds, smells, the strain
Of events of nine days past surged in. It
Drew a smile for St Brendan and the linnet.

Smiling for St Brendan and the linnet,
You sighed. The train’s whistle, billowy steam,
And wheel clack conjured up your wide-eyed
Wonderment as the pony and trap left
Home and that first train trip--all to arrive
At the great ship--a rime* by rime ravel
Of threads to your known world. This time travel
For you, fifteen in Nineteen Twenty-Five,
Bore you aloft. Scenes loomed--the warp and weft
Of a new world magical carpet ride
Sewn from books or a soft pillowy dream--
In Penn station stood Uncle Joe--pinnet*
Thread of the family fabric you both wove
To Grandda, heartstrung in the grove.
*  bird of Jove – an eagle
*  Cobh – pronounced Cove, formerly Queenstown
*  Celtic – built in 1901, at over 20,000 tons, it was the largest steamship in the White Star Line at that time
*  quark – to caw, croak or screech like a bird
*   parian – a fine, white porcelain
*  Ollapheist – a large dragon who fled Ireland rather than face St Patrick. It is said that the Shannon Valley was created by his tail on his departure.
*  St. Brendan – born in The Kingdom (Co. Kerry) in the second half of the fifth century, his Navigatio Sancti Brendani told of his travels to North America . In 1477 Christopher Columbus traveled to Clonfert, a monastery founded by Brendan, to study Brendan’s Navigatio.
*  curragh – a boat made of tanned oxhides stretched over a wooden frame. In just such a boat, built to the same specifications set down in the Navigatio, Tim Severin sailed to America from The Kingdom (Co. Kerry) in 1971.
*  foemen’s fish - as a World War I armed cruiser and later a troop ship, the Celtic was hit by mines laid by the UB 80 off the Isle of Man with a loss of seventeen lives. She was torpedoed by the UB 77 in the Irish Sea on 31 March 1918 with a loss of six lives.
*  the Celtic withstood a collision with the Hampshire Coast on 21 April 1925. She was to collide with the Anaconda off Long Island , NY on 29 January 1927. She met her end during a gale when she was driven upon the rocks of Roche’s Point on 10 December 1928 with no loss of life.
*  St. Brendan’s Fair Isle- variously located on ancient maps. Ortelius, on his 1570 map entitled Septentrionalium, locates it due west of the southwestern tip of Ireland and due south of Iceland .
*  Iscariot – Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Christ, was encountered on an ocean rock by Brendan. On a respite from his fate, Judas pleaded with Brendan to intercede on his behalf so he might have additional time. Brendan did so and more time was granted.
*  The Navigator – a nickname for St. Brendan
*  Decimater – tuberculosis

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