The Cortland Review


Stephen Dobyns

Stephen Dobyns on Poetry: Choosing the work over the life, and "trying to pass to some other kind of level below the surface."

Paul Hamill

Saint Brendan Reports To The Monks Of Iona. A world of sea and land, soft mornings, and gildings of glory.

Leslie McGrath

T'ang, Textures and Texas in Dick Allen's, The Day Before.

Paul Hamill

Paul HamillPaul Hamill, who says Irish monks reached North America around 600 A.D., works at Ithaca College in upstate New York when not sailing on Lake Cayuga. Publications include The Year of Blue Snow (Edwin Mellen Press, 2001) and Winter Mind (Pudding House, 2003).
Paul Hamill - Poetry


Saint Brendan Reports   
Click to hear in real audio
To The Monks Of Iona

for my Brendan

the world is sea and land.
Suppose there are soft mornings.
Suppose there are calm days,
sheets or gildings of glory
on water and hill and cliff.
Who would not sleep like an infant
at those soft dugs?
But if there are long stretches,
monotonous hard and cold,
then jagged surprise and strain?
Those must also be glories,
face to face with us
as if the cloak of godhead
were lifted at the edge:
What terrible cold! What storms
tossing the specks that wail
in fear! What thunderous ice!
If we worship glory
it tests us: the alternative
is to worship nothing. Which few
can do, even if they would:
small gods and lusts creep in,
inherit the closed soul.

It is mercy that lets us
measure the little of glory
our minds have strength for,
a gift as far beyond
our power to earn or answer
as the wide sea around
our coracles. The answer
given to angry Job
was given to my complaint:
I asked in the depth of my heart,
in the courage and folly
of faith in my own reasons,
"What did this come to? Why
did You send me so far to fail?"
The answer? Not to reach
what you knew how to imagine.

Brothers, our fathers imagined
a West of the old gods
and heroes, Tir-na-og:
an earthly paradise,
a limbo bright with fruit.
Why might I not sail there?
In all the waking hours
of our devotions I bent
to an abbot's proper mission
to seek out far-flung monks,
inspect their ritual, hearten
or discipline. But in dreams
I met the hero-gods
of the old days; they strolled
with saints and Christ. Out there
the shores of death held bays
and gentle strands, it seemed,
where the great souls had sailed
both in and out at will.
Why couldn't one sail to heaven,
a journey through dark and water,
death and baptism mingled,
testing both skill and faith?
At worst, we'd have the tale
of a true miracle
to draw the folk to Christ.

Our arid minds are as avid
for God's truth, which is glory,
as the rich man in Hell
who begged for one cool drop
on his tongue. The sea is less
than a drop to God, the wonders
of that are such that a drop
of vision is all our thirst
could taste. Ten years we threaded
among the northern islands,
weaving the brotherhood
that is our comfort. Joyous
and greeted with joy, we sensed
the great strand still beyond us.
And what we saw! One time
the peaks of Hell were jutting
above the waves, and demons
lobbed clods of fire at us.
One day what seemed a cliff
of seabirds teeming by thousands
lifted itself and flew,
one creature of myriad greeds
like our own souls. One isle
was white with wool; monks there
met in the peace of the Lamb.
And once the sea was milk
with ice curds, as from birth
our senses chill and hinder
the frail boat of the soul.
But my long-suffering crew
was wondrous beyond signs.  
The ten years purged my dreams,
weaned me from the heroic.
I only wished to serve
as distant monks' good father.
But though we heard of cells
and chapels on the shore
that ends our sea, we found none.

The faces that we found
were not the black-and-blond
of faery but red-brown,
wood-savages more somber
and civil in their towns
than our blue-painted, tale-
and magic-addled, cow-
theft-celebrating cousins.
Grapevines covered tall firs
like druid robes, so lush
they were. You know that dread
comes over those who land
on a strange shore where cliffs
or forest hang above them,
and the surf pounds the brain
and the night prayers and fire
are both wind-tortured. That land
is like another sea,
to judge by rivers and beasts.
Worlds upon worlds, John says,
will end in terror and glory.

Ten years we visited
the islands on the way,
and the dream voyage changed
but slowly, for I am stubborn,
to a shepherd's thoughts of his sheep;
and the while wonders mounted.
Already village singers
tell that we sailed a millstone
buoyed up by faith. The fable
was born of sailors' jokes
before our christened shell
of hide, our trust in things
unseen. But in a sense
it was true, and true for you
as well. We heard small birds
pipe and scream amid squalls
that blew them far to sea
and knew them for our mates
if God were not our steersman.

I speak as abbot now:
we will not fling our brethren
to the shores farthest West,
to be deprived of learning,
of watchful brothers and shepherds.
There are sufficient pagans
around us and within us.

Novices, I confess
the strangeness of my heart:
a voyage is home to me
as a land-roof is not.
Our island is my cell
and hairshirt (but for your loves),
but it ties down a soul
that flails in Satan's gusts.
The risk of voyage to me
is too much love of it,
and pride in seamanship.
It is that childishness
I had to put away.
You young!  So full of life
you think to sail like birds
above the real, not through it,
as men must!

Of what use,
I asked in the long reach
and scud from isle to isle,
is great desire? Of use,
I thought: it is God's gift
but Satan's tiller, hard
to steer. What use in launching
to the unmapped, to whale-paths
best known to storms and death?
What use the tedium
of a long sail, what teaching
and penance? With what blessing
do the squalls blow to rags
the fabric of our designs?

O brothers, the disasters
that come of small mistakes!
The bare survivals born
of routine and preparation!
They are the humble glories
we are permitted to make
while God unfurls the world!

The mission I had was a gift,
I knew. A part of it failed,
the joy of the farthest reunion.
Like Jonah in Nineveh
I felt betrayed, then saw
that we were launched to see,
and now to tell, a tale
of majesty and works
beyond our fantasy.
And yet the proofs were here
as well. They crash in our ears
each night, ring at each dawn.
I come back sick and trembling.
You must all be my crew
for my next voyage. My pride
was so great, cost so much
from others' lives and years!
I praise God in excelsis,
my sight receiving wonders!
Yet it may be the droplet
from heaven to the tongue                                   
of one who is to burn                    
henceforth. Stand watch for me
in every prayer, O shipmates.





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