Campbell Corner Poetry Prize

Contest Archive

The Poetry of Nathalie F. Anderson: Finalist, 2000

The Slaking

Elemental Tourist

Shirt of Nettles, House of Thorns

The Slaking

There is one story I can hear again
and again, the story where the shoe fits,
where the tempered steel snagged in the cleft rock
eases itself into the proper hand, where
the stranger flings back his hood and Robin
kneels in that verdant heart, where the mourner
complains to the gardener, where the man
with the child on his back stands open-mouthed
half-way across the river as his old name
flows away, where the one who beds the hag
wakes in the morning to the young queen.
Put your hand in my side, he said: yes, yes,
now I see. Not discovery--you knew it
already; not disguise stripped bare; but re-

cognition, the train leaping the synaptic track,
the ship slipping its galactic tether,
the perfect stone skipping its way across
the cloudy nebulae. He promised me
a thing that is not easy: boots of the skin
of a fish. I have worn those boots, I have
worn them down, the leather carp-rosy, the old scales
petalling the sides, a vellum so sheer
my pulse blushed salmon-ruddy through that
suppleness, that tenderness so shocking to the heel.
In those boots I have walked for seven leagues,
I have walked for seven years, the moon
bounding before me, wringing out its white loins
every twenty-eight dreams. In those boots I stood

in the cave where the wheat-sheaf lights the dead
to life, I stood in the ball court and watched
the blood fly, I stood in the cathedral
where even the glass is stained, and I am
no believer. Yes, I have seen the victor run
triumphant into darkness, the vanquished giddy,
drunk with free-flowing rain. Who was that masked man?
And mama, why did he leave us, hi-yo
Silver away? On the fourth day without sleep,
edges began to shimmer, one action
bled into another, the molecules
the atoms veering off into space: what goes
when you choose noon over midnight. As a planet
turns first one cheek and then the other

to best advantage, as a planet
slowly turns its ravaged face to the light,
we come round at last. The moon swells, the moon
empties. Some nights, I swim sleeved in darkness,
a fish flowing into itself, flowering out
of its own elements; some days, I walk the earth
flayed of my skin, and every breeze salts the wound,
my eyes seared, my tongue scalded--coals of fire.
If the skin fits, wear it, fling back the hood, ease your
worn heart from your side, wake in the morning as
the new queen. Re-cognition. This is
what you are, and this is where: so much light spilling
over the lip of the world, it slakes, it dazzles,
it splashes profligate into the trees.

Elemental Tourist

for Joy Charlton

1. The Aching

You came there solid, your feet steady
with it, your gaze level, the heft so
habitual, even that step from dock
to deck never rocked the boat. You came there
solid, your sweater buttoned and your
jacket zipped, the layers of knit and woven
wrapping tight the chill, the massif groaning
with its own weight. Solid, lodged, but lode to lode

when your foot bit down you felt it, the pang
so pure it sang in your bones, it shattered
their quartz stability. Landslide, granite
shifting, fissures rifting to abyss, and
you still gasping it out: stones hurtling
and grating, chocking your chest full, clogging
your throat; pieces of you levitating
in surprise, thunking into the sea. Not

simple as joy or sorrow: when an ear
or a tooth aches, a back or a belly,
the nerves plait endless reels, you can't tell
one strand of the tune from another.
You came as solid and you left austere
as air. You're not the first. A nine by three
mile island, three thousand miles of dry-stone wall--
they'll build their houses with the scree you've dropped there.

2. The Vortex

Out of the blue the gale cyclonic, breakers
high as the light, the light squalling
into darkness, and all of them lost: the gay boats
keeling, spinnakers bloating and spewing,
dragging the sweet boys down. And you the eye of it:
decades later, and still too stark to see. Rock
edged with rock; molars and canines chewing
the thick water; low caves gulping and spitting--

every kind of hunger: the chasm sucking;
the gust snuffling; the swell gasping and lapping;
every side of you plucked and buffeted; and
none of it intended: waves stumbling
at the same reef, drawing back to smack it,
kicking and cringing; the spume flung high,
thick-bodied, glistening into dazzle, into
bright air; light settling, unsettling. Not

simple as threat or haven, flight or plunge:
ninety nine steps down, all the winds keening
on them, decades gone, and out of the blue
the gale cyclonic, surge spiralling, spray
cascading, and you the eye, the stinging eye--
your hair streams out, your jacket opens, skin peels
flake by flake away: lost, you're lost, all of you
lost to that whorl of blue, that sob, that reeling sea.

3. The Grounding

Who needs antiquity, when all that's old
gets prettified? That's what you thought, before
you entered. Oh, it's been prettied: grass cropped,
paths graveled, every stone surveyed and measured,
thyme scenting your steps, Grass of Parnassus
starring the hillside, all refined since elk
belled in a forest choked with oak. Still, still,
snarled or unsnarled, you're caught, you're circled. A hand

held up, fingers angled inwards, cupping
a palm of earth, you straddling the life-line,
finding through thumb and index a sight-line
to the sea. Or a mouth held open
to the rain, teeth gapped but healthy, strong, and you
riding the tongue that after all these years
might speak. Round table, scrum of comrades: who's
trapped? who's shut out? whose ring is this? Not

simple as hub or margin, how the cupped hand
crushes to fist, the jaw clamps down. Not simple
as grace or loss, the cisted boy palmed
and cherished, meat on the tongue. What's inside
must out, what's out streams in: light breaks the hill's heart
each year where you're standing, sparks, grounds itself, leaps out,
the muscular grasses bounding uphill
ahead of the wind, Bloody Crane's Beak tapping.

4. The Firing

Never a day without cloud, never
a sunset, though the sky stays pearly
nearly til midnight, brightens again by three.
Light pooling and seeping, silver streaks
on the sea, haloes over the off-shore
islands; light stroking the flanked hills, each
leaf saturated, each straw in the thatch
clarified; veils floating and parting,

wind whistling through dry-stone walls. Longest
day of the year, footballers flaring
in the pub below, a window bowed out
over the harbor, boys with their dogs leaping
to board the ferry, and you with the tourist's
geis: never to sleep in the same bed,
never to eat from the same plate, never
to gaze in the same eyes twice. Nothing

so simple as twilight, the blush starting
without your knowing, the skin warming,
tinting you rose, Mary Rose, Moira
Ruah, Bloody Mary, Roisin Dubh. A flipped coin
red-gold in the air, heads you win, heads it is,
each rift in the water rich with it, as if
a man slips your hand into his jacket pocket
and you as red as if you held the sun.



Each of these poems is associated with a particular place in the west of Ireland, as follows:

The Aching: Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands.

The Vortex: Mizen Head, where a fog station marks the most south-westerly point in Ireland, and one can glimpse the Fastnet island lighthouse, site of the racing disaster alluded to in the poem's first stanza.

The Grounding: Drombeg Stone Circle, County Cork, where at mid-winter the sun sets on an alignment from portal stones to recumbent axial stone. The cist- (that is, urn-) burial of the cremated remains of an adolescent boy inside this circle has been dated to 480-720 AD, significantly later than the likely date for the erection of the stones. The significance of these stone circles and of the burials sometimes found within them, particularly in the west of Ireland, is of course a matter of speculation.

The Firing: Baltimore Harbor, County Cork. A geis is a concept which will be familiar to readers of the Irish epic, the Tain Bo Cuailnge: it's a magical obligation with the force of taboo, or even of fate. The geis I've half-invented here alludes to the advice Aengus gives to the fleeing lovers Diarmuid and Grainne: in Marie Heaney's version from Over Nine Waves, "Never enter a cave that has only one exit or climb a tree that has only one trunk, and never sail to an island with only one inlet. Don't eat where you cook and don't sleep where you eat. And in the morning, don't rise from the same bed you settled in the night before." A Mary Rose sauce--basically tomato and mayonnaise--is often served with seafood in Ireland; Moira Ruah (or Máire Ruadh)--Red Mary--was Máire Ni Mahon, wife of Conor O'Brien, who attempted to preserve their estate after her husband was killed by Cromwell's soldiers in 1651, by marrying (and then murdering) one of the English soldiers; Roisin Dubh--Little Black Rose--provides a coded reference to Ireland in political "love" poems culminating in the 19th century with versions by James Clarence Mangan and Samuel Ferguson.


Shirt of Nettles, House of Thorns

in awed esteem for Alice Maher,
who made these things


You plant the strange seed to see how it grows--
a beanstalk to the clouds, a better tomato,
poison apple, deadly nightshade, kudzu--
always a surprise. So the little ruddy rose hip

yawns into a peony; the grain of salt
takes fire, puffs out its cheeks of glass; the seed pearl
complicates in porcelain crinolines;
splinters thicken to hard block; the dust bunny

kicked and wincing, forgotten under the bed,
rowls itself into the junk-yard dog--that's it
in a nutshell: each snail distilling
the cowl on its back, the husk it was born to.


A nest for Thumbelina nestled into moss,
pied-à-terre among the pommes-de-terre,
basking and burnished as a cinnamon cat
licked into spits and glossy with tending.

Look again: it's the bristling boll of sweet-gum or
sycamore or buck-eye--some spurred species--squared
to a folk profile: peaked roof, high gable
spiky with thorn--a closed house, impervious,

leathering into prickly isolation.
Where's the girl ripe for piercing, who shuttered
her windows and latched fast her doors? Where's the chink
to press an eye to? Where's the coy lip to kiss?

Oh prince, rip your hands, rip your heart out. Someone
walked through the briars with her eyes wide open,
laying her hand deliberately against each thorn--
thick at the base, fanged at the tip, each cat-claw

picked for its perfection, slicing the thumb
to the bone. Someone dried them, aligned them,
mortared them straight. Someone knew you'd come looking.
She built that house, made that bed, walked away.



Thick in the thicket gooseberries hung their lanterns
from two-inch spines; raspberries ripened into jam
on razor-edged canes. The gloves held out
so disparagingly, you saw you couldn't win.

Ringed round by thrusting briars muscled thick as snakes,
there's not much scope for turning. Bees laced themselves
through the fretwork. The smug smile: "It's only nettles." Your hands
puffed white with the sting. Blackbirds in the hawthorn,

beaks open for the bite. Between morning
and evening a quick snap of the tongue: fling out
the changeling cursed with a pretty quickness
too sharp for her own good. Imagine going wittingly

to pluck the nettle, leaves caught in an apron
and every slightest brush a skin-popping shock. Greening,
flattening, pinning, stitching--bite your pillow,
claw at the air, skin welting along the spine and rib

of each fine seam, each particular leaf. How long
before you strip it off, bled light as a feather--
a pain you made to grow out of,
something for Good Will, last year's fashion.


Once upon a time--as long ago as that
and all forgiven. The curb falls from the tongue;
eyes cry themselves to clarity; the girl
wakes up, runs to the window, brushes

her glowing hair. But close your eyes and
it's the flay tongue, it's the whip hand, it's
the acid bath, the scald eye, the happy
ever after: fanged house, shirt of flame.