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Gretchen Steele Pratt

Gretchen Steele Pratt received her MFA from Purdue University. Her poetry collection, One Island (Anhinga Press, 2011), received the 2009 Robert Dana Prize for Poetry. She teaches at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

By This Poet


Born of Driftwood

On the Outer Banks in the early 1900s, a migratory sand dune, several stories high, engulfed the small fishing village of Seagull. Two churches, the post office, thirty-five homes, and the one-room schoolhouse were consumed by the dune.


Teacher is building a shack of driftwood, building it on the far shore. We watch from the schoolhouse windows, taking turns with her old silver binoculars. She gathers all manner of driftwood into her apron and sometimes passes by the beach in front of the school but does not turn her face to us.


Born of driftwood endowed with breath we are—began that old story Teacher had to close her eyes to tell. She spreads the wood to dry and eats nothing and takes not a drink but smokes her pipe. Eyes dry as opals and the sand and wind drying her from the inside out—petrified, as Teacher would say. Sister says her bones are anyway filling with sand.


Where is the lighthouse keeper? The light is out. There had been no beating it to the boats, no crowded bridge. Sister says at the tip of this spit of an island a wave of sand has begun its slow roll down through the land, a tidal wave of sand swallowing the trees right up to the grapevines that hang from the top branches, swallowing the barns and the cows sleeping in them, their nostrils choked with sand—sand-killed, as Sister would say. A tidal wave of sand never crashing toward us and no stopping it as long as the hot wind does blow.


And so each night the ghost crabs swarm down the whole shore, we hear the claws and shells scuttling over each other, and do they bother Teacher? And moths beat like birds against the schoolhouse windows. Morning comes and Sister pulls the rope, the bell clangs above us but not to wake Teacher who is already neck high in her cocoon of driftwood and weaving more on.


Mosquitoes the only weather thick most mornings with the sun and we keep the windows closed. Clouds of mosquitoes like ghosts work our little patch of garden. They never bothered with Teacher on our old walks by the marsh passage—her being made of smoke but smokeless—she is, then winking, walking backward to face the line of us through the water grasses though our legs be already welted with bites.


We were waiting for Teacher to harvest the school-yard garden. We all sunk the seeds in the spring and now so long without rain the melons rot on the vines, sunken, sucked looking. GOOD FOLKS IS SCARCE TAKE CARE OF ME—the sign we painted in the middle of the garden hanging by one nail.


The buoys gong in the rainless sun-blown squalls. Our books are brittle and everything is so dry. The map of this island curls on the wall. And turning to tinder the pictures of the flora—bald cypress, sweet pepperbush, yaupon, cordgrass, switchgrass, blue-eyed grass.


Teacher will lay us all down one by one limp like just-hatched birds in her nest of driftwood but I don’t tell Sister.


Sister spends her days drawing the growing sand wave on the chalkboard. She says it is now entering the island’s graveyard the laurel all withered. And the graves being but sand-filled will be gathered up, the coffin tops will dry and crack and pop their nails. Where once was only the shade of oaks and cedars.


At night the slowest breaking of glass, ever closer, pane by pane the wave swallows the homesteads. Our ears are licked by the heat. The ocean grows smaller and farther from us. Teacher must walk farther each day down to the wrack line.


The windows of the schoolhouse grow cloudy with moth ash. We wait. We have shed all manner of clothing. We grow light, waterless in the slow trough of the sand wave. Bleached as bone, Sister says. Bones light as kites.


It towers at the edge of the school yard, the tall pines crack. No stopping it as long as the hot wind does blow. Burning, but smokeless, smokeless. We can hardly hear the surf, so far has the ocean left us. Teacher will row to us from across the sand in her boat of driftwood. She will gather us in her apron and lay us down curled inside the hull. The sea far away now, emptying itself wave by wave of this white wood.

But for This Passage Touched by Nothing

Enough to have heard there was once a Venetian glass chandelier
So large, so ornate, of the lightest soda glass, arabesques of leaves

Fired onto its many arms, so elaborate and delicate the only way
To get it to the New World was to hang it, floating, in the belly

Of a ship, submerged in water. It did not know what it was, chandelier,
Immersed in a sensory deprivation tank, unlit, never touching

The flanks of that vessel. It felt it was something there in the dark,
Could sense the swoons of many branches, some remnant of the torch,

The glass master’s breath. Come to be a witness in the New World,
Suspended, raised in a penthouse high above the Park. It did not know

What it was – brain, or missile, or crown. Come to be a witness, on, off,
To the generations, an heirloom vesselled. But not yet. A pause,

A preparation. Unbelievably dark, not even a dripping. Tiers, stems, lush
Stems, the work of the furnace – sea shells, ashes, sand. But in the depths

Of the Atlantic, a not yet, it swung in water that wasn’t the sea, quite,
Unaware of all it hung above, curved supple out of sand and ash, a creature

Of the deep. To be hung beneath the celestial murals, the gilded
Ceiling medallion, forever dusted with a long feather. But for this passage

Touched by nothing. A net looming through, without any catch.
To take shape as an impending occurrence, to sense the stilled blood

Of jewels, veins of internal amethyst loomed in. It did not know what
It was, halo, net, spiraled out dying star. Not even a drip, just a groan

Of the muffled fathoms. Come to bear witness from a ceiling painted
With angels, come to hang high in the New City, in a tower sunk

Every morning in clouds. But for this voyage seen by nothing, a tomb
Or bride, the singular purpose of the ship, forever marked by this drag

Through the sea, bass note of the ocean held down long after.
Fire polished, it knew not what it was, heart, gown, or cage.

It could sense the chambers preparing. An heirloom, but not yet,
To hang above the feasts to come, the delicacies of the sea reappearing

Down the years, splayed open – oysters, caviar, crystal fountains
Of shrimp, octopus, the blue and black mussels on beds of ice,

The chandelier, so much older than us, scattering its underwater
Light. But not yet, it catches nothing, it does not dissolve, it is a hanging,

Unlit branches, a bouquet, swaying, carried, absent the cradle of arms,
But on its way, as bouquets always are. To be raised dripping, unlit, craned

Over the throngs in the new harbor, to be raised, dripping, a wreck,
A corpse, a mirror, to harden like ice to its ballroom purpose.

But not yet, go back, some remnant of the torch, it knew not what it was,
Sand and silt of the Old City, fired from the sludge of the shallow lagoons,

Raked to dry in sun, first sand and silt of the crumbling foundations,
Cathedrals sinking in the canals, shifting islets clasped only by bridges,

Torched ash of saints veined in gold threads, meal of the dragons’ bones,
Masked face of the glass master, his secret, the burning saltworth marsh,

Spell of ash, poison, quartz – it did not know what it was, cave, fountain,
Or shroud, when in the ancient port of Venice it was lowered crank by

Crank into water, coffin or ghost, from the surface fading, ghost or lace,
It knew not what it was as they lowered it, hand over hand letting out

The ropes, into the sea – lung, piano, chandelier – but not yet. First this
Darkening, the glint of sinking, the letting out – anchor to a Floating City.