Mark Jay Brewin, Jr.is a graduate of the MFA program of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.
His poems have been published or are forthcoming in numerous journals including Southern Poetry Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Hollins Critic, Los Angeles Review, Copper Nickel, The Labletter, Poet Lore, North American Review, Greensboro Review, Cold Mountain Review, Prairie Schooner andelsewhere. They have also placed as finalist in the Guy Owen Poetry Prize, the 2011 Third Coast Poetry Prize and the New Letters Literary Award Contest, won the Yellowwood Poetry Contest at the Yalobusha Review, as well as been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His first book manuscript Palace Depression won the 2012 Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize at the University of Utah Press and will be available in the 2013 Spring catalog. Currently, Mark serves as Poetry Editor for the online publication Saxifrage Press.
The Island Meditations
Dew-matted mornings, I woke to my father
coming home from his midnight shift
of measuring kilowatt-hours, of blocked coal feeds
and overtime. I woke to him by the sink basin
washing the slick glove of oil off his work-swollen knuckles
and fingers, the coffeemaker’s huff and purr
just over the hissing faucet. Two black cups.
Eventually he asked if I wanted eggs, how many?
He halved shells and whisked the yolks in a bowl.
Once plates were washed and put away,
the garage doors opened, again, he laced up his boots
and trudged outside. Spying from the dining room window,
from my heap of school papers and book pages
I watched him drag the tractor’s discs,
how the hitched grater box ate away at the backyard mound
of fill dirt. In my notes from the week’s geology lessons,
there was the story of rocks—New England
and the British Isles formed from the same stock,
the same limestone and shale my father kicked up
in the yard, the same stone walls stretching Rhode Island
and Ireland. New Jersey was named for the largest
Channel Island. Edinburgh castle is stacked on top
of a volcanic formation. The facts stuck upon themselves
and forged a landscape. One of boulder fences
spanning farmland, one where another version of my father—
at that same exact moment—also flattened soil
into the low spots of his yard to keep the threat at bay,
of water closing in around him, where another boy
understood the rough turf he grew up on
a bit more, another boy who found worthwhile land elsewhere.
The clang of rocks against the plow. The ringing in my ears.
Little scissor-snip scars the length of her fingers.
Her small trimmers unused and ungreased
since the last time she cut hair at the salon.
Her simple questions while she cleaned up my neck
day before I left for New Zealand, How many
hours difference is it between there and here? Do you want
me to pack your suitcase for you? And when I said
I’d already loaded everything in my duffle
and canvas book bag, she wondered if she
could look over how I’d arranged my clothes—
I hope your shirts aren’t wrinkled—despite the fact
she’d already asked twice and I’d answered twice.
The clippers plucked out a hair behind my ear,
as if on cue, and she explained, I forgot. I’m sorry.
At nearly my age, my mother learned of the delicate
handling mandatory for an infant. She never wanted
to attend college. There were Cosmetology classes
when we three kids had full days at school,
and for four years, four days a week she loved it.
I don’t know what caused her to leave work
behind. Darwin was an explorer in the sense that
he wanted answers. Not to scale new lands,
but know them better. Though I’m no pioneer,
I’m still the first in my family to leave
the country, the east coast, the state. My mother
gone quiet, I said to her, From Nothingness,
the Maori believe, came the whole beginning. The earth
and sky were the mother and father, all their kids
were the different elements. You should read the creation story.
They’re a people that hopped in their canoes and sailed
beyond their known world. How do you do that?
She told me I was raising my chin, to look down
so she could check the neckline and finish up—
The lights in here are giving me a headache. Out the window,
the afternoon was gray, and though only home
for the last week, I couldn’t think back to a winter
when it wasn’t. Worried she would lose her grip
on the comb and scissors, she asked me
to put everything away, so she could lay down.
I should have told her before she went to her room
that despite Darwin’s musings on the variety of species
on their solitary islands, on common descent,
he was still buried at Westminster Abbey.
He knew exactly what to say, how to say it,
the keenest way to present his findings and theory—
not once did he mention evolution, only promised
that “light would be thrown” on man’s origins
and history. Instead, I checked my luggage,
the last thing she wanted was me forgetting anything.
So, tell me, what’s it like over there? Tell me all about it.
and my sister goes on and on, minutes borrowed
and bought on a phone card, each echo over the wire
traversing the time zones’ invisible borders.
I want to tell her all about the strange mutations
that happen when populations grow isolated,
the magical effect on evolution that islands have,
that otherwise vanish. On these sandy experimental
grounds, are the published almanacs of vicariance:
across the north and south islands, colonies
of birds, flightless kiwis combing the underbrush,
the fables of great eagles, giant Moas twelve feet tall,
three-toed, carnivorous, hunting tribal men,
women, and children. And more than what is here,
the dwarf elephants of Malta, the enigmatic platypus
paddling the rivers of Australia and Tasmania.
From the rocky clay of Flores, they have uncovered
a real hobbit. In the caves of Palau, are bones,
fragments of skeletons, whole skulls, pygmy,
and it is this, more than anything, I should
tell her, that on the whole of Ireland, you won’t
find a snake, and there are stories for this.
In New Zealand, the Maori still fear the Taniwha,
reroute whole highways so as not to disturb its haunt.
Each year, our brother changes his mind about
the profession he wants—classes to be an EMT,
construction work, and now he’s opted for
our father’s trade, says it’s fascinated him all along,
and I hope this is true. Even she, for so long,
studied music, was fluent in a language I could never
grasp, yet she hasn’t played trumpet in years. This is what
I understand about evolution, survival: that organisms
divided by a terrestrial barrier alter into a unique species.
Every island I’ve wandered, the inhabitants are more
of the same, maybe their voice a bit more nasal,
their customs no stranger than ours. But there is
nothing I can muster, no way to explain any of this
over the phone’s receiver, except the simple, It’s grand
over here, perfect almost. If only you could see it. I can’t tell you
how nice it is to be some place so very different from home.
The way I was raised, “ignorant” only meant rude,
not lacking knowledge. Trawling the shallows,
lunar-bruised and reed-thin, the water’s ebb and flow
exhuming the sands’ buried omens of sharks’ teeth,
the scuttle legs of horseshoe crabs torn apart
in the surf, my brother remarks how ignorant his friend was
to not get him another handle of rum
after he knocked it over. Off work, at home
with nothing else to do on a mid-week night, we want
the salt air, the blinking radio towers along Corson’s Inlet,
the sirens of ambulances volleying across the showery dark
beyond the toll bridge, the Philly blunts we try to light
against the wind while we tell each other about
wherever our life seems to be taking us.
Though I’ve been stateside for six months, he points
towards Atlantic City’s glowing pit and apologizes
that I must not have seen any of this in New Zealand,
but I explain to him that that country is not
without its machinery. Pipelines and water turbines,
hotel elevators and room lights. Though that island-world
gushed with the wild, it too was scabbed
with foot-to-summit pulley rigs and frayed cables,
rusting cranes and generators. Though they no longer ran,
I knew how those engines would shudder and grunt,
what they call a haven of sin & slavery here,
they call a paradise elsewhere. In one language, an ice flow
is called Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere, in honor of a Maori
maiden’s fallen lover, and in another it’s the Franz Josef Glacier
for the way it recalls a dead Austro-Hungarian emperor’s
muttonchops. The motorways and town names,
the lexicon, at times, so close to translation,
and others, unexplainable. My brother tells me again
that our mother is drifting further and further into herself.
He says she doesn’t like how we don’t talk much—
him and I—but we’re on different schedules.
And when we say a night out, away from the family,
when we decide to change the subject to anything else,
we understand there is nothing between us
to say at all, so I cross over to the beach reeds
beside the boardwalk and pull two thin laths
out of the cheap dune fence, pass one to him and begin
our age old way of communicating, hitting each other,
laughing like lunatics. This is what we’ve always done,
our own language since childhood—the crack
of the planks on our skin, the welts on our arms
slowly emerging like driftwood breaking
the ocean’s surface in the out-going tide.
It is an art I can only fake—how I prune pine boughs
off the neighbor’s tree bending further and further over
our fence each year, weave the clippings and tie ribbon
into Christmas grave-blankets for my great grandparents,
my grandmother. But, abroad again, I understand
something new about beliefs. If lightning struck an oak
and the jolted limb fell off the trunk, over the property line
and into my Jersey yard, my father would be the one
to clean up the wrecked foliage. If it fell on the other side,
there would be another father to gather the pieces.
But here—Ireland, Scotland, England—there are hedge walls
staking borders and between them, a man’s arm span;
the fairy lane, a liminal space for the other-worldly.
Among these holy grounds, where spirits bury sacred tokens,
there is no easy way to disturb, no welcomed admission.
If you must enter, you must have offerings. Whenever I
return home, there are souvenirs, photographs,
and I have to hope these little gifts will convey the grace,
the memories and familial influence I carry everywhere I go.
The guilt one acquires in Catholic school lectures
isn’t readily forgotten. When I tramped Croagh Patrick—
the mountain the saint fasted for forty days and nights—
I ascended the craggy face barefoot, the true pilgrim’s way,
not out of sin or fear, but some strange mix of faith
and reverence. When I nursed my blistered and bleeding feet,
I mended an almost-martyr’s mark. Another time,
in New Zealand, soaked from the storm-soggy duff, I kept
my eye on Mitre Peak, shored each step through fallen, dew-
slick trunks like a trapeze artist, the mud swelling ankle deep.
Everything foundered into muck whole, including my left shoe
under a wrong step, and when I reached in to salvage it,
I plucked a silver butter knife sunken for forty years.
This was no little thing. More of what I’ve learned:
on any wandering, your feet must constantly test the ground;
if the earth hands you anything, you are on divinity’s stoop.
At the cemetery, I walked around each plot, careful not to step
overtop of a body—a superstitious tick, I know, but can’t help—
and genuflected before my grandmother’s carved stone,
prayed my tribute might make up for what the dead
make possible, her heirlooms that found their way to me:
her father’s ring, her Wheaton Glass bottle collection,
a plastic suitcase from the seventies—the one I use
on every trip, the one in which she wrote my name.
On the Bus-Eireann through Galway City center
heading out of town, studying street names
and one ways, I catch a sign for the Latin Quarter
and imagine my father’s comment, “If only it was
just a quarter of the city.” The Hispanic population
booming in my hometown of Vineland,
migrant workers trucked in each season to harvest
the fields. The Italian descendants do the hiring
and keep a keen eye on everyone like a careful parent.
These rivalries exist in every homeland. Mynondog,
an old Scot king, knew his kingdom and country
would long be disturbed by Anglo-Saxon invaders,
foresaw the unicorn of his descendants’ crest
chained by the crown of the lion. Around London,
I couldn’t help but notice the victor’s seal everywhere.
The horned steed facing its captor. The brutish feline.
When England first colonized New Zealand,
they imported stoats and weasels to counter
the brush-birds, killed off dozens of species the world
had never seen, will never see again. Laughing owl.
Huia. Stephens Island wren. During the conquest
of Ireland, British “planters” worked the land
as much as the native tongue, named what
had already housed generations. The country paled:
Castledawson, Upperlands—the endless arguement
of Londonderry or Derry. When I called home
yesterday, my sister told me that my brother
and father were rallied to an accident scene.
Some goddamned illegal ran a stop sign and slammed
into the side of a passenger car, a woman and her son
who I went to school with, who suffered
from Osteogenesis imperfecta—brittle bone disease—
had all his limbs broken on impact. My stomach
dropped, and I heard my mother ask my sister to do
another load of laundry, to put dinner in the oven
before she left for work, to tell me to call back,
that she’s too tired to speak right now. I’m jarred back
to the bus when some drunk gets on and yells,
What am I, black?to the woman next him who doesn’t
appreciate his advances. He grunts again,
You fuckin’ Polishare only good for scraping shit off a dirty plate.
And though the driver throws him off,
the damage is done. I hope the majority of those
on board don’t agree with him. I hope my sister
can remember a time when our mother was good
at something, when people didn’t break so easily.
I have been here for months and still
there is something new, something else
that unsettles me. First, the scores
of eighteen year olds, piss-drunk
and pawing at each other, groping
and urinating in the street. Now,
the armed soldiers escorting bank vans
to each branch. According to gossip at the pub,
an IRA sect was found in town and local
enforcement expects the worst.
There seems to always be answers
at the bar. Just a week ago, after I had
returned from a week in Dublin, I finally
found someone to explain The Spire—
that huge spike—erected on O’Connell Street.
Nineteen sixty-six, the IRA blew up
the Nelson Pillar, another English marker
on foreign soil, and to replace it, the country
commissioned a national monument be built
in its place. In Galway, along the coast road,
marble statuaries recount Irish peasants
fleeing the famine. There is pride
in their ruin. There is nothing more
dangerous than a narrow love
for one’s nation. Each year, I hear of another
friend gone abroad, escaping the rigid
Americas for a European world-view.
Each year, a friend or a friend of a friend
ends up paying some price—arm, leg,
life—in some branch of the military.
Each year, my mother writes me a letter
and this one is no different, no matter
if I’m off the continent. She pens
that she’s worried, explains that I’m wiping
the family out of my life. On the isolated
plot of our home, there is no talking
with someone, only talking behind them.
In the Republic of Ireland, there is just
traditional music and dancing, the national
ideal, a united island—preservation
of Irish heritage, making up for the six lost
counties, trying to feel whole. Every act
of violence, whether from one side
or the other, only serves
to make the border more futile.
Maori invasions and European diseases
and the Moriori people of the Chatham
Islands were decimated; the last,
full-blooded tribesman died
in Nineteen thirty-three. The fight
to keep everyone united is more than
an uphill battle. Some would say
it’s impossible, but it doesn’t keep those
from trying. Not the military
from their beat to halt the unionists.
Not the modern day guerillas gumming up
the republic’s works. Not the menacing pin,
pointed at the heavens, threatening to burst
its starlit rapture if ever it fell on them.
By the very nature of a trip, there is a departure
and a return. On my packing list, I’ve implemented
the slow marking off, the clean text of what I still need
to fold and stuff into my luggage. One piece at a time.
Attentive and sure that I haven’t misplaced anything.
The littlest item lost always causes the biggest stir—
in New Zealand, if I climbed a peak and packed a lunch,
then I tramped out of the bush with my apple cores
and bread crumbs, worried of any foreign introduction
I might make. No Pink Lady groves amid the gorse.
No plum speckled between the cabbage palms.
Just fear to keep brush from being ruined with fruit trees.
Park law, a nice try at gathering what has already spoiled,
but still I can understand the effort. Whole forests
leveled on Easter Island: the tribal people needed trunks
to roll their huge, carved stone moai. In a few
generations, there was nothing left, no way to leave
their isle prison, no other home for which they could
set sail. My parents, my sister and brother ask me
how long I’ll be home, before I take off again. The fact
that I haven’t left the island, left Europe, and still
I need to decide on my next stop. No direction,
no bearing. After every place I travel to, I cross out
where I’ve been—X doesn’t always mark the spot,
just a spent treasure. The only things I’m certain of
are the few things I’ve collected: a handful of rocks,
sea glass, a random spoon abandoned on the sidewalk.
Before there was ever any compass or astrolabe, ferries
or cargo ships, there was a young warrior and his kin
in their canoes, tribal clans, whole armies rowing,
fairing the waves, drowning or arriving on a foreign shore.
No way any of us this day and age can comprehend
that ignorant spirit, that nerve and strange hope
for what lies out beyond the known, for no certain end.