She sits by the split cottage door knitting
a navy sweater on five thin needles –
seamless, to resist salt water, biting
winds, the neck tight enough to make ears bleed,
no swell wild enough to strip it from skin.
She knows the pattern by heart, each bobble
stitch is a prayer, each basketweave a hymn
to the deep. She ignores the new grumble
from her swollen belly, thinks of the dropped
stitch above the waist, a small gap in wool
to identify the man she loved – loves.
His worn boat has not been seen for days, caught
perhaps on some other island’s rocks. Still
time to return before the next storm hits.
After the Storm
Cyclone Nathan left behind six new islands
and drowned one. When the sea stopped
churning, she was the first to step
onto the coral rubble outcrop,
to press a size five footprint
into the sand, and feel
the warm grains filter
through her fingertips.
It was too early to tell
if this land would last
long enough to be mapped
or sink back down into Holmes
Reef before she’d had the chance
to form its name on her chapped lips,
but below in a hollow underwater cave
flashlight fish create dozens of pinprick stars.
First published in Bare Hands Issue 20
St. Brendan’s Floating Isle
Fed up to the back teeth
trying to swallow my tail,
I took to watching islands;
small figures on the beach
hauling nets, eating together
on the sand; telling stories.
It is not easy being at sea.
Some days the sun makes
my scales shine and quiver
but in truth they are grey
and there is nothing to do
but dive into the ink swell
feeling the currents’ tug;
so when I saw them coming
I paid attention –
skin stretched over wooden ribs,
tar smeared where the hides met
and the strange scent of oak bark;
voices carried like salt in the wind,
making my eyes sting, the lilting
sound was an unknown symphony
and the sight of those men side
by side, oars in their skelfed hands,
was all it took to draw me in.
I kept myself still, as though
twisted roots held me to the sea bed,
and lowered my head as if in prayer,
longing to feel their feet on my bare
back, exploring my shoreless edges
to translate their talk into glorious kinship.
I did not know it would burn;
the warmth of their heavy limbs
turned to fire and I cast them off.
First Published in Copeland’s Daughter (Smith/Doorstep) June 2016
Below the locked tower
Comber Estuary twists,
rich enough in salt marsh
and eel-grass to tempt
Brent Geese from the sky.
We are restricted by tides,
must wait for the reveal
of a narrow path, walk
the concrete causeway
still wet beneath our feet.
The route is circular –
a mile and a half round
the island edge. Strangford
Lough strung out for us
like a blue silk ribbon
or an old rope tightening
around the neck. Time is short.
Our joined hands have barely
warmed but there is nothing
to be gained by getting trapped.
Our fingers come undone.
I’m unaware this patch
of disappearing land is named.
We hurry into the dark,
slip inside separate cars.
First published in Honest Ulsterman June 2016
What the Trees Whisper
A rook clawed free an empty wooden house,
took to the sky, content with the weight of rooms,
left behind three apple trees, their shadows
lengthening under a neon sky on the orchard floor.
He dropped it into the sea at dawn and left
to find a single storey house. The open windows,
not accustomed to salt winds, slammed shut,
wakening the ghosts and raising the roof
five metres into the air. It is easy to imagine
lightning cracking open the solid slate sky above
this island house. Tropical birds emerge from sea-mist,
squawking of turquoise pools and a distant sun.
I’m not drawn in to their dripping pollen stories
and try to dream myself back behind three apple trees,
their shadows lengthening under a neon sky –
but find myself staring at barbed wire, a corrugated
iron fence, my own reflection. I never was content
with the weight of rooms, tended towards open fields
and paths I didn’t know, would happily catch a train
into a black, forgotten tunnel. The track twists
back on itself, clicks and creaks and groans
in the record temperatures. On the grass bank
an abandoned grandfather clock ticks and tocks;
a child falls over it following the scent of a forest.
First published in Abridged
I admit I came to lay it at your wooden door
but stop to let the flaking fact sink in, as if
it mattered; you haven’t painted the door in years.
They called it Burning Ember on the colour chart.
It’s sun-baked now but still reminds of the buttercup
you held beneath my chin, nodding as it shone.
I pretended you were right. For years, when you passed
the little gold parcels across a coffee-shop table, I smiled.
I learned to like the texture but never the salty aftertaste.
The lock remains, the rim now freckled with rust. I must
still have the key; could filter through the bottom drawer,
feel for the grooved edge of a key, cut to mirror yours.
I could check if you ever lifted the carpet in the hall
to reveal blue mosaic tiles. Did you strip the paper
from the wall? Let the roses drop in a soggy heap?
If I climbed the stairs I’d be careful to miss out
the sixth step in case it creaked; could pad softly
to the spare room where the curtains are pulled
to dip my head below a mobile of moon and stars;
watch her breath rise and fall under brushed cotton.
Her golden brows are yours. Her gorgeous lashes flit.
Do you remember the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam?
How we argued over Vermeer and de Hooch, the former’s
windows, the latter’s doors – dutch doors – horizontally
divided, so the two halves could open independently,
allow just enough light to illuminate a patch of terracotta
tile. And how you laughed as I mistook A Mother’s Duty;
saw only silk, not the leather shoes or the small head buried
in her mother’s lap. I believed she was sewing, not picking
nits from a mop of dark hair. I’ll leave the key beneath the mat.
First published in Spontaneity
St. Brendan’s Floating Isle & other poems are © Stephanie Conn