Poems by James Armstrong, Artist-in-Residence

The ship cut the fog with an immaculate prow,
its funnel unfurling a banner of coal smoke,
the captain sounding the foghorn’s growl
until the hull rivets rattled. It was the
Booth Line steamer, carrying her tourists in celluloid
collars and impractical hats, cases of beer,
eggs, week-old newspapers, the Norwegian mail--
and receiving in turn, on beds of January,
the gutted lake trout with their still-luminous eyes.
At the railing, a young man from Kansas
shivered in his summer jacket
watching the island make itself out of mist --
a shoreline jagged as the jaws of a muskellunge.
Something swirled in his blood which
he would remember. On a spit pointing into
the summer weather, out of island timber
he would raise this low roofline, mix this mortar,
stack the heavy beach cobbles into a chimney,
and caulk these windows framing the blue cove
where the mergansers bobbed in the surf.
He would spend
the long summer daylight in conversation
with water and wind, desiring nothing but blueberries
on the ridges, and a lake trout on his line.
Beyond the horizon, like clouds of locusts
men fell upon the earth. A thousand factories
bellowed. But here the moon
would wax and wane on a quiet schedule
and the thimbleberries would blossom.
He could bring his family. They would play
cribbage by kerosene light.
They would burn fragrant cedar logs
and stand out on the point,
watching the pulse of the Passage Island light.
Staring out the window as evening descends
on the scarred wall of ancient basalt
whose scrivened edge is repeated
in the blue hush of the bay
where a lone merganser, out fishing late,
pecks at the rising moon,
I am listening to my portable radio
beside the sink, which is playing,
a Bach concerto,
one of those 18th-century
assertions that the hand of divinity
works behind the world’s evident sorrow,
spinning the wheels-within-wheels
of a Baroque order.
My own hands are washing the dishes--
before this panorama
of luminous water and dark pines
and fading sky, it
seems a priestly task, an ablution
to help the evening summon its
firefly stars. But despite my
domestic happiness,
despite the harmonies caught
in the longwave bands
of Canadian public radio,
a day’s reading in geology
provides the counter-point:
all nature is disorderly,
follows no template, is utterly unlike
a harpsichord’s flourish.
There is no theme, no melody,
only notes picked out
on random instruments:
vulcanism, salt chemistry, the deposition
of alluvia, the arrival
of vascular plants, mere entries
in a material sequence.
Even these hands, these
nets of articulated bone,
are no more blessed or blessing
than that prow of stone,
outweathering all opinions,
now bared to the
battered moon.

The music
filters out of the speaker
into the northern twilight, where
the myrtle warbler tends her careful nest
by the cabin eave. I can see that
the stars are incomprehensibly distant, and
I can see that there might be
a super-human grandeur
or at least a dignified pathos
to our longing for order
and our capacity
to weave it so delicately
out of the empty air.
Along the transverse ridges
of lichen-encrusted basalt
so old it bears no memory of life,
rock that boiled out of livid fissures
and hardened, and sank beneath its own massiveness,
was thrust up sideways, worked by frost and wave,
then scoured clean of all alluvia
by the glittering wall, miles high, out of Canada --
after all that fire and ice, that lonely history,
here, on a day at the end of July,
as the south-tilting slope absorbs the summer heat,
among hawkweed and harebell
the berries of summer ripen;
we pick them and eat
them, we savor
their brief fragrance.
On the meadow above the butt of McCargoe Cove
the wild thyme brings the scent of the Mediterranean
to island bees, who drowze in its purple flowers.
The log buildings burned in the fire of ‘36
long after the mine had closed and the miners left
with their helmets and jackdrills
for richer veins, more hospitable latitudes.
The tracks were torn up for scrap in 1918.
The rest is swallowed in forest.
Only the shafts remain, dank and dripping,
and this gentle herb, escaped from the company garden
to bloom year after year beside boreal flowers:
a classical reference, seasoning the wilderness.
The ledge, tipped out of the glacial waters,
brilliant with lichen and harebells,
may be a lesson in natural history,
or an elegant composition,
but if the latter, may not be
deduced from principles
as beauty must always be
purposeless, to be perfect,
and the sign of our analysis will be
our perfect joy. If the dead cedar
on the stone shore is scribbled with
sinuous rhythms, with tight, non-repeating whorls,
it does have something to do with
Chinese painting
and the sound of the word arabesque,
but does it concern biology?
To say the black low shape of an offshore islet
glowers within itself, a still mass contained
by the liquid flux of the lake,
to say this image is both restful and a
lure, is acceptable data.
To say the moon ignites a sea of sparks
to awaken the splendor
of cold desire,
is certain, as are the rings of carbon
that stiffen the beach basalts.

To say the sleek shadow-shape of the diving loon
has been turned on evolution’s lathe
is to give it a cause; but
to praise the sleek head, its terrible awl,
makes explanation inadequate.
You must choose either truth or beauty,
the ancients said. And


they are identical.
1.

Agassiz stood on the beach at Thunder Bay
and stared out over the whitecapped passage
at a blue hump on the horizon.
The half-breed steersmen shook their heads,
not liking the odds. Agassiz
went back to camp and checked his specimens
--lake trout, sculpin -- floating in spirit bottles.
He gave his students-- the Harvard boys
who had followed him into the birch trees
and black flies of the Superior uplands--
an improvised lecture on geology,
sketching the earth’s crust on a square of oil cloth.
In the morning, they turned their canoes
south, for Michipicoten and the Sault.

Back home in Cambridge, working on his
never-to-be-completed Fishes of North America,
he became obsessed with discerning species
in each fish flayed on the examining table --
a slight variation in length of the dorsal
or ventral fin, in the arrangement of the organs,
in the coloration and pattern of the scales,
signaled a new thought in the mind of a God
who took keen interest in the fine details:
If we can prove premeditation
prior to the act of creation we have done once and for ever
with the desolate theory which refers us to the laws of matter
as accounting for all the wonders of the universe
and leaves us with the monotonous action of physical forces.
… and, strange to say,
a thorough examination of the fishes of Lake Superior
is likely to throw more light on such questions
than all traditions, however ancient…

The fish lay in their barrels, with empty eyes
fixed on the world’s direction.
During the great debates over Darwin
Agassiz would grow choleric, waving his cigar:
“In nature there are no varieties! Only
adherence to the invisible ideal.”
The year of his death, he instructed pupils
by making each hold a grasshopper in his hand
so each would feel the little twitch
of ingenious wings while the Professor
lectured on the splendor of design.


2.


A century and a half away, we climb Lookout Louise
to stare across the water at Thunder Bay
with its toylike radio mast and office buildings
and busy harbor. The world increasingly
bears the scars of our design. We come to this island
to reassure ourselves
with the wild tilt of Greenstone Ridge,
the wolves and blueberries.
We are pleased by all variety:
a white harebell nodding among the blue
and a smaller, more fragrant strawberry
among the larger plants.
Some wood-lilies are orange, some shade toward crimson.
My pocket guide to the island’s lakes and bays
lists all the fishes, and notes the variations:
blacknose shiner, pearl dace, fathead minnow,
whitefish, cisco and the big-bellied
Siskiwit; their local shapes
are not the product of premeditation.

We eat our lunch, watching a sailboat tack
down Five-Finger Bay, the sails luffing
as the wind shifts unpredictably. Far above
a redtail rides the updrafts, soaring, sideslipping.
On the way back down, the southward view
is empty of anything human--only sky and glittering lake.
In a burned-over field
we stop to gather berries. The reindeer lichen
crunches under our feet, and the grass smells dry.
Grasshoppers launch themselves as we walk by,
whirring into the heated air
with a warning rattle, landing
in places neither random nor predictable.
I catch one up in my hand, and feel
the little tick of its life, but
poor student of Agassiz, I don’t think ideal order
but of small decisions, little movements of skill and chance
weaving the shining cloth of the visible world.
Bending over the edge of the dock with a bucket
I gather up language.
I carry it up the hill, keeping the burden steady
as I step around tree roots,
despite all my care, a little spills onto the path--
splashing the names of flowers,
pale white vowels.

Bending over the woodpile with an axe
I am splitting a tree into words.
I left each in my arms, weigh its close-grained density,
When I stack it, it makes a dry,
faint music.

I walk down the path, saying the word
“path.” A bird flies
from the bushes into my dictionary.
A beach stone rolls its roundness in my mouth.
At dusk, a star announces its starry name.
And then comes the moon that every poet ogles
but cannot find in poems.
The canoe is a kind of shoe,
it may walk everywhere--
to all narrow bays, and
all stone-rimmed islands.
The sky is a kind of hat,
with a blue brim.
The lake is a prayer
repeated in all directions.
Listen--up on the ridge,
among white birches
the wind is telling
the beginning of the world.
Seven loons fish in the narrow passage,
dipping their beaks in each wave
peering down into azure gardens
for the shudder of herring.
One keeps watch in our world of daylight;
when the fisherman come
dragging their dangerous gear,
he utters his ghostly tremolo.
All disappear.

I rest my pencil on this page
awaiting the jerk of an instinct so old
it predates the human --
the call for speed
in underwater alleys,
my eye a terrible jewel
my mouth already opening--
beauty following in the
slipstream of need.
 
 

Last updated: January 15, 2020

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