The pod of whales beached themselves on Rutland Island,
chose the isolated sweep of the Back Strand to come ashore.
My grandmother in her final years would have understood.
Those long-finned pilot whales suffered some trauma,
became distressed and confused. And so for her that winter
when told her grownup daughter had died suddenly.
Three years later, hearing that her eldest had also
passed on threw something within her off-kilter.
Sent her mind homing towards the Back Strand.
The whales had wandered together, over thirty of them,
swam through Scottish waters to the Sound of Arranmore,
heading towards the crescent of shoreline and their ending.
She would have understood, the Rutland-born woman
who had long left the island but yearned for that place; called
for it constantly, rose from her sickbed in the middle of the night.
I need to go now. They will be waiting; it will soon be low tide.
She wanted to journey, follow those already gone,
float ashore, let grief beach her there on the Back Strand.
You don’t have to run away to join,
it comes to you around their thirteenth year.
You hadn’t even noticed they were in-training
until you sense excitement,
strong as fumes, building up in your home.
Music gets louder, nights and mornings confused,
every room is taken over as the friends, arriving
in single file, increases to friends of friends
to claim every available seat, even yours.
The circus builds around one son, then the next
and the next until soon, three rings are running
full flow. You try to become the ringmaster,
the one in control, while you collect tickets at the door,
take further bookings, supervise training, do the laundry,
provide meals for the performers, refreshments
for the audience, try to watch all that is happening.
And just as you notice that one son is putting his head
into the lion’s mouth, the other is walking a tightrope
without a net, you look over to the furthest ring
at the clown juggling madly. He makes the slightest
gesture, out of sync with his act, and your heart stops.
His show has become the riskiest. He is juggling
frantically, the big smile really is painted on,
his hands are shaking and he is about to drop
everything, as those who you thought were his friends
are not laughing but jeering. You clear the ring,
silence the noise, take him into your arms and hope
that he will begin to talk, tell you what is wrong.
You watch when he starts to go back to his ring,
lifts a club, two clubs, four, until he is juggling well again.
While in the distance, his brothers are starting to pack up.
The show goes on until the troops move to another city.
Your house has become calm, you miss the circus days.
Demeter: mother of Persephone, goddess of the harvest
and the cycles of life. The Universal mother whose daughter
went missing, who did not drink, eat or bathe until she found her.
Mother of grain and crop, the bountiful gift, blessings on
those who looked after her own. The curse of unquenchable
hunger on those who brought harm to the ones she had borne.
Mistress of the home, producer of life, she sent her cubs
through a darkened cave into immortality and a blessed afterlife.
As it was with her, it was with my grandmothers and my mother.
Good mother, blessed mother, working mother, fairy godmother.
Guardian angels; tooth fairy, baker of birthday cakes, lovelorn healer,
soother of hot fevers, stitcher of torn hems, night-time story teller
who taught us how to walk, talk, sing, dance, cry a river and then smile.
Mother Nature full of fresh berries, wild roadside flowers, lilac
filled fields. A lioness, black bear, white vulture, all-present mother.
Watch over my clan, watch over their future, watch over their care.
The Goddess mothers: Anu, Gaia, Toci , Rhea, Durga, my own;
a Cailleach and Bríghde, Glinda the good witch, moody woman, crazy
kitchen-dancer. Mommy, Mummy, Mum, Ma, Granny, a Mháthair.
Creator of cycles, unconditional love and hurricanes. The core of peace.
Give me guidance, nourishment and strength. Help me to hold on
and let go, be present and absent, wise and foolish, the past and future.
Help me to be the mother my own sons need, the person they will cherish,
and the woman who will warm a hollowed soul in those who need a mother.
The Dream Turns
Everyone sees what happens on the front porch,
we were lucky to have a swing-set in the back yard.
I was going to be a ballerina, until I saw how much
practice it took be left standing on my tippy toes.
Holy smokes Batman. My mother saw me belly-flop
off the high diving board. She was stuck behind the fence.
There were birthday parties on picnic tables in the park,
lightning bugs and fireworks on the fourth of July.
The Yellow Submarine was just one long cartoon.
I was thrilled when Oswald was shot. Hated LBJ, Nixon.
How could they ever trump that? They should have seen
when the Cuyahoga River went on fire,
that pollution takes a long time to implode.
How are things in Glocca Mora, will you go lassie go?
We used to throw the cat down the stairs, to prove he would
land on all fours. We wondered why he turned vicious.
Wave-beaten pier, a leap into the craft, lap of sound against the boat,
gurgle of bilge pump, life jackets, life saver, the punt propelled in motion,
surge of cloud on sea-blue heavens, rudders through the harbour, thrash
of buoys, tangle of ropes, crush and curl, swell of turning white waves
washing back to the Port. The growing roll of engine denotes
a journey has begun, anchors long lifted, our spirits buoyant, emotion
crests with the plunge and surge, waves of wind. Grey seagulls splash
into bottle-green depths, rise above the stern, fly overhead and behave
as victors, irritate the vanquished with shrill calls from sea-scorched throats.
The ferry passes. Dorys slop, splash, roll and fall in our southwesterly vision.
Sweep of air, taste of salt, tinge of marine, flounder of foam. Wave-wash
lifts the hull, turn of spring tide, sink to low tide as seafarers brave
gales: small craft warning Sea area Erris Head to Carlingford Lough.
Oar, tiller, winch and moulding, bulkhead, portside, aft and mooring.
Crab nets, lobster pots, leap of dolphins, slink of seals, diving oystercatchers,
mackerel, herring, hook and sinker. A cuckoo calls. Light abounds as we follow
the coastline, the full flow of seawater in our blood, head to the open ocean.
Seaweed and Rotten Potatoes
This ridged inlet of shale and rock facing the Atlantic
contains a cruel, cragged beauty and a fierce knowledge.
Its history holds a summer’s day when a white fog stole
up the sides of these cliffs, over the hills, in a cold trail
that left a black blight in its wake and a terrible odour.
A bank of shingle covers the coastline and my boots shift
as I try to walk along the shore. I can’t hold my balance.
I think of that question, why did they not eat fish?
Some whose lineage survived still question their resilience.
But boats were stripped to bare bones and pawned off.
Makeshift fishing gear was sold for bags of meal.
Fragile currachs smashed off the savage shoreline.
Fish rotted putrid if left sitting out for any length.
Men rowing home drowned in sudden squalls
and when the ocean stilled, what remained was silence.
Others who edged along the sheer cliff-face searching
for black tar lichen and kelp trails met brute-force waves.
So they came to this beach in their droves. Whole families
climbed steep rocks, barefooted through jagged shingle,
searching for limpets, periwinkles and seaweed,
scraped out what minuscule nourishment could be found
inside a small shell and ate it raw. They fed from barnacles
and salt-soaked bladderwrack straight from the shore.
They scavenged until the limpets and bárnachs
were depleted, until the bare stones could give no more.
Denise Blake’s collections, Take a Deep Breath and How to Spin Without Getting Dizzy, are published by Summer Palace Press. She is a regular contributor to Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1. Her poems have been published in many poetry journals. Denise facilitates creative writing in schools and with adult groups.