Navigating the Reach || Mary Buchinger

On remote Norton Island
off the coast of Maine
less than a month
after my father died
the moon has yet to practice
this particular loss

I must have seen it quartered
like this before, but this
waning after blooming
full summer solstice
in the city—and I islanded
now, marooned beneath
the naked spurs of stars
this is different


When someone dies
he is not prodigal

but grief comes round
like the tide, swollen
then ratty in retreat

today in its wake, ropes—
braided and frayed
knotted to a hollow jug
or snaking empty

ropes, useless, stranded
on rocks—rocks, immovable
truths, complicate everything

I watch my step
having learned through slipping
the slickness of the black algae
on these creviced granite slopes


I’m told this is a reach
that I’m looking into
and the island’s joined at low
tide with another by
a gut—mucky crossing
for deer, sheep, mice

All day long, thrushes
here, drop silver coins
into little silver cups

my father loved to whistle
ribboning the air, abide
with me, bicycle-built-
for-two, you make me
happy when skies are grey—

I watch a raccoon wash
its paws between boulders
ocean shimmering beyond
its hunched shoulders, emerald
forest at its back, the kitchen
trash bags ransacked


My Michigan girl-dream
of tide pool, wildly off
I could not know—

and now face to face
with the real thing, the startling
ruddy blue calico
the many, many mouths
opening, pops of seaweed
sea lice, barnacles—I sip Atlantic
air, sun-thick salt-damp

to sit like this and receive
receive, never would I
have dreamed this light-
lending inflorescence
how much we can’t foresee

I watch two translucent
dime-sized crabs scuttle
in a bottoming-out rivulet
a shadow-filled shrimp pushes
away with its army of legs

lone detached lobster claw
At dinner someone asks
was your father
an extraordinary man?
Extraordinary? I don’t—
don’t know. He was mine
and I loved him


The trail in this mossy rock-
and mud-floored forest
is marked by buoys
impaled on broken limbs

half-buoys, trawler-bitten buoys
glow orange and turquoise
suspended debris, heart-height
as displaced as a childhood memory
of holding his hand, playing
with his ring, the smell of his pipe
the cherry tobacco, buoys
strangely guide me here
among trick traps of sadness

still, sometimes the deer—
unseen except for their paths
of crushed and pawed moss—

tempt me to stray
to lay my cheek down
on the easy uneasy green

I say I have to get
my bearings, as if it’s a matter
of walking a perimeter
establishing direction
finding where the sun will sink


When the path takes me
to an open flushed-out cove
an eagle swoops down
like a broadhanded sorrow
I shield myself
heart pounding
surprised by its immensity
that it lives here too

At my feet, a smooth flat
rock that fits exactly
in my palm. This I think
the shape and heft of my grief

I launch the rock
out into the reach
it skips the surface
three times before
dropping below. Gone!

Hours later, when I return
to the cove, a rock—mine?—
sits shining, ringed in seaweed
wet, like something newly
born , a rock on top
of a rock, on top of a rock


In deepest woods, wreckage
of mussels pried open, plucked
the needley path pocked
with scat of alabaster shells
purpled with urchin, what
couldn’t be digested

I inspect a lace of lichen
and out flutters a matching
dust-colored moth. I too
want oneness, or is that only
camouflage? Hermit crab
scurrying from emptiness
into emptiness?

Everywhere here, the blank
awful, open eyes
of paper wasp nests
abandoned like silent
scraps of poems

The island is held together
by spiders, the invisible
sticky portals they spin
their come-what-may
hapless fly, airy
catkins, hemlock litter
awkward caterpillar
caught caught dangling here

On the eastern side, a storm
blew through some years ago
uprooting trees that tilt
now, grey knackered
twists of branches leaning
into the green-headed ones
who hold them up
the living and the dead entangled


Now, fog, a burgeoning hush
ushers in fishing boats
the island bows out
its stage swept of detail
Part of me remembers
everything is still there
nothing really has changed

My eyes keep returning
to the knobby dead birch
solitary limbs wrapped
in soft fur fog
It is its own private drama
blunted grey shape against
a blunted grey sky


I’m told the island is part
of an archipelago, as everything
is part of something. This island
one of three thousand
on the polka-dot coast
of jagged crags

How does one learn
to navigate the reach,
its treacherous rocks?

Some here call them stones
these things that could kill you
Others make them known
naming each one—See that?
Whale Rock. This one, Snakehead
To these I add
Leviathan and Thief

One giant rock
leavings of a wave or glacier, perches
triangular on a shelf, looks seaward
Touchstone Rock—it brings good luck—
Just touch it! So massive.

I could live inside, gaze toward
Portugal. It’s made of mirrors—
fractured quartz—I drape
my body against the sun-saddled
Rock, absorb its warm fortune

Dusk, high tide
we climb into the boat
circle the island—spy
one stepped-rock outcrop
strung with white birds on stilts
beside them a larder of harbor seals
shatters suddenly into frenzied water
they disappear like a probed emotion,
then surface, curious, observing
with solemn, fatherly eyes


Every island must have its snake
its bit of trouble, even here
in this experiment of beauty—
and when you think there could
be nothing wanting, someone
tries to plant a garden
amethyst iris, chives
wild sweet pea twining
beside imported cream roses

My father loved my mother’s
flowers, asked their names
forgetting each even
as she spoke them. Sweet
William, Zinnia, Dusty Miller.
I recite them to remember


This reach runs deep
a slimline channel
between two bays
cut by a glacier
that scraped out, inlets
and peninsulas, necks, harbors
a twine of tributaries
and falls that reverse!
rills and runnels that fill
filling, empty, and fill again

such abundance of coast
pillowed in granite, all
crumpled in against itself

If one could tug each
end of the state and straighten
out that snaking rope
of intricate seaboard where
land rises and kneels like
memory meeting its grave
and where sea finds
meaning in its own absence

how very long that shore
would be—a kind of ever
one can only attempt
to reconstruct, to dream
back once more, into being

This was originally published in Fall 2017 edition of The Helix.


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