Background: When I was in Toledo in early January, I went up to my study and found a couple of folders, one with letters from Margaret from 1967-1969, saved all these years, and the other of poems from the same time, including a couple held together with a rusty paper clip and a 4 X 6 index card (possibly left over from high school debate?) on which I’d written “early Margaret poems”. At first it felt a bit painful to read them: They seemed full of unnecessary obscurity, when what I really wanted to say was that I really respected her as a person.
But there they were, and I couldn’t not read them. What I can’t remember now is whether in fact I ever presented any of them to her. The references in the middle section of the main one (“The Turning”) make me think that I must have written this for her 17th birthday, not long after I got back from my family’s long trek to Alaska in the summer of 1967. In reading through it, I was struck by how parts of the poem seemed to prefigure things that happened later.
So a couple of weeks before she died I sent the poem to her in an email together with some of this explanatory material before and after. I knew that she didn’t have long to live, so it was my good-bye to her. Now that she is gone, it seems to apply to her present situation, on her journey from this life to whatever is next. No one knows what this is, but sometimes we get inklings. My mom has since had a vision of her in a white room filled with light, being healed and ministered to by those who came before her. That makes sense to me. However, my vision of her is a bit different: We know that she was excited about the prospect of discovering what was next for her. For me, it feels as though she has at last begun the voyage described in a poem I wrote for her in 1967. Looking at this poem from the other end of my life, in the wake of Margaret’s passing, I wonder what it will be like for me to take the same journey that she has now begun.
The title is a complicated and fairly obscure play on her name. Since this, I’ve a done lot with this kind of etymological-metaphoric approach over the years, in other poems but also in a series of articles I published. Much of the meaning of the poem eluded me at first, but as I went through I started adding a few annotations in brackets, and that helped.
Soft Flows the Stream, As Stars upon the Sea are Pearls
Soft flows the stream:
See the humble coracle,
[a small skin boat used by medieval Irish monks;
I suspect that this is supposed to represent Margaret]
Riding the waters in silence.
Leaving the flowery leas,
One cast eyes upon
The crystal crucifix
And you saw a single Pearl
Amid the last brilliant flashes
Of the setting sun’s
Came the insect
[I don’t know exactly why, but I think I’m referring to myself]
As the coracle reached the sea,
Scratching to be seen.
[a reference to the famous sea-faring medieval Irish saint,
15 years before we looked at our new born first child
and realized that this was his name;
here I think he’s meant to symbolize the Spiritual generally:
God, Jesus, Buddha]
Transfiguring the insect:
A guilty cloud of smoke,
Expanding supernova cloud,
Took the disembodied journey.
A turn in the starsea path
Brought the dolphin
[I think this and the previous bit are talking
about reincarnation, which means that the dolphin
is also me, a much nicer image, I think…]
Beside her [the coracle’s] rounded bow.
The saint smiles
But she is free –
You are free, and
The dolphin desires
Only the Koinonia.
Seeing visions of islands
In the west;
[In Celtic mythology, the land of Faerie,
where we go when we die, is in the West; that is, Heaven]
Promises to find and keep
Where the sea is the table
For all such things;
[The image of the Communion Table
comes to me now as I read this]
Where grace is the way
To lead all things;
The dolphin will not
Force the course;
Two wakes meet
And mix between.
[Thirty-nine years later, in 2006,
I would use a similar image in the poem I wrote
for Brendan and Mayumi’s wedding.]
[I’ve skipped a dark and somewhat muddled part here; then we come to the middle section of the poem, which I apparently later pulled out as a separate poem, called:]
Refining todays, melting
All the layered yesterdays.
[McArthur Park is melting in the rain, anyone?]
Smile upon the changes good
Mark well all changes evil…
Time and changes will not cease;
Perhaps, soon a bit more evil
Then more good.
But of time there is
No real knowing
Time is not the seeming
Nor we. The
Counting of years increases:
Years are so arbitrary
Yet their turning marks with
The growth, the changes within.
Within the changes:
The turning of the stair…
O do not despair
The length of the journey:
The island you chose as destiny
Is fair but far;
Others may rest sooner
But the gain and glory
Will be yours.
[I’ve skipped a section here that seems to go on too long about storms and things, then we get to the last section:]
… Until the storm fades
To gentle breeze,
Soft stream from fragrant
Flowery leas borne on
The smell of salt,
And the humble coracle
Nears the island [of the Blessed]
So far to journey
So long from Eire [Ireland],
Genesis of journey,
And the memory
Of home sings of childhood
While the tide comes in,
While time passes beyond years
Marked with circumstance,
To mean another branch has grown,
Another step is taken up the beach.
And the vision of dawn shimmers
Wherever your eyes gaze,
Shining prophecies of the promise
Into the sea,
And the blessings of an advocate
[1 John 2:1]
Emanate from the Cross
Of crystal and the Pearl:
With the coracle, with you,
With the Saint’s unseen presence,
With the dolphin:
Rippling stars upon the sea
Glitter to open eyes,
Pearls set upon the swirling sky
In the hours
-Robert KW Elliott, August 1967
Further reflections from 2011: As I worked my way back into this poem after all these years, it felt like a form of time travel, like Proust and the madeleine cookie in Remembrance of Times Past: The essential meanings and feelings of it came back to me, now reflected calmly and without the pain and the need to hide behind obscurity. Here was a heady, shy 17 year old, just starting out on the main part of his life journey, trying to communicate to another 17 year old, just starting out on the main part of her life journey, a very simple message: The hope that in some way their journeys would be connected. The amazing, unexpected thing about this is that the hope came true, both in the more mundane, exterior sense of occasional visits and catchings up, but also in the more important sense of taking her along as part of my interior community. By the time I’d finished typing this poem into my computer, cleaning up the punctuation, adding annotations to blow away some of the cobwebs of obscurity, and cutting the bits that wandered or went on too long, I was impressed. In the later sections of this poem I finally managed to get outside of my self-preoccupation and to really focus on another person. In the years since, I’ve written dozens of poems for people I’ve cared about: parents, siblings, children, in-laws, friends, and colleagues. But as far as I can tell, that all started here.