I used to dream of islands—
Flying like swimming, breaststroke
Over ripples and ripples of blue
Until I found a thumbnail
Of green and white
To dig my toes into,
To feel the miracle of warmth
After so much cold.
In a place so strange to me
I would not feel my strangeness
“Oh my God, it’s gone,”
The researcher mourned
After the hurricane
When he learned the island large enough
For monk seals and sea turtles only
Had been washed over—
Sand mixed up with waves,
Refuge scrambled into a chaos
You could no longer call an island.
And so we lose ourselves
The space to dream.
There is a spit in Washington
My parents and I like to walk.
Five miles to a lighthouse
On a scalloped strip of tide-wet sand
Below a rise of driftwood sprouting sea grass, pushed up
By the same rushing foam
That chases our footsteps.
Every time we walk it
I think: What if I didn’t leave?
What if I stayed in the lighthouse
Nodding at the sea gulls
Until the pieces of my soul
I’ve lost through too-fast motion
Catch up to me
And settle right again?
But the signs at the entrance warn
If we see young seals bellying up the beach
To back away
Back to our car
Because their mothers won’t return with food
If we are there.
This spit, also, is a refuge
For seals and for shore birds, not for me.
And it will not take much warming
To wash it over, too.
The word refuge is wrong for wild lives,
Too human and too solitary
For what are their resorts,
Their Cabos or their Saint-Tropezes,
Their places to see and to be seen,
To meet and love and nest.
My dream of islands and of lighthouses is wrong too.
The loss of such places
Is a tragedy of horror,
Not of melancholy.
And if for me they whisper freedom
It is only because I do not speak their language
Well enough to understand their rules
And feel judged.
Their disappearance, though
Needs no translation.
I witness it
And am condemned.