My husband and I recently returned from an extended stay on one of the barrier islands of Georgia. I’ve been visiting this beloved part of the world my entire life but this one island in particular for the past two decades, without a lost year among them. I honestly could not believe it when I realized that fact (and how keen we are to the signs and markers of our own existence!), but twenty years just seems like such a milestone to me. Such a tender vantage-point from which to consider not only who I’ve become over all that span of time, but also what this island has consistently meant to me–I love it like no other spot on earth.
Since I was seventeen, I’ve been making the attempt to put into words the unique beauty of this place that is so much a part of me. Alas, never to my satisfaction–my journals are filled with half-fledged raptures and awkward attempts–but I’ve been trying, nonetheless. I can’t help it. I know this place, and I am known of it. I imagine the longing to express my love for it will haunt me for the rest of my life. And I’m so glad. But one of the things I wanted to do upon so meaningful an anniversary was to try and commit my feelings to verse. It’s not what I would like it to be, not nearly. Some things are just too precious to confine to words, and the greater my loves, the more I feel my inadequacies. I realized at the outset, though, that I can’t put everything this island is to me into one poem; it would take volumes to do that. So I honed it down, whittled my words into one clear channel. And what resulted was nothing more nor less than a love song for an Island. I hope you enjoy it.
Love Song for an Unlost Land
Living God! Was there ever a world of such grace?
The beauty of a thousand summers lives on here,
with the souls of all their flowers,
and the heady young glory of my own greening spring.
My past waits on through all the long winter of exile,
brooding under moss-hung trees and haunting the cloistered shades
with a memory of joy too tender to be told.
I find it once more–and my own self with it–not in the slow gathering
of unforgotten days, no quaint posey of remembrance, delicate and intentional,
but all in a rush, in one greedy draught of golden air,
sailing over the causeway like a homing bird.
It assails me with an embrace that takes my breath
and never fails to summon a spring of tears.
How kindly this jeweled Isle has kept my times, whole days of deathless joys
and hours so precious this world seems scarcely large enough to hold them.
Surely it was a dream: that age, that innocence, that marsh-skirted island itself–
so my winter-soul speaks amid the cold despoiling of earth and tree.
Surely life was not meant for such sweetness.
But I have only to catch a wandering breath of jasmine on the breeze,
or a lemon-thrill of magnolia, or even (or mostly)
the Maytime gift of lowly privet,
to doubt my own doubts and laugh my unbelief in the face.
Before such sweet convincing flee my land-locked thoughts,
like wind-tossed foam scattering over a silver shore.
But, ah! To come–to feel the sun’s wealth falling warm upon my upturned face,
To drink the cordial of the salt-laced air and see the curtained moss
waving and parting in welcome–
is resurrection; a revival of the deepest things, as real as the awakening fern
that inhabits the boughs of these legend oaks, kissed alive by rain and dew,
furled fronds unwithering in a sudden flowering of green.
This is my gift, my grace of this undying place. My hoarde, my fairy gold,
that makes me rich beyond compare.
All this, o Island-world, set like an emerald upon your filigreed marsh,
you give without stint in astonishing candor, baring your verdant heart
to those who love you.
And who among such swains more ardent than I, who loves the very sand-loam
of your soil, and your life-teeming shallows,
and the spring of your grass beneath my feet?
I remember that early wonder, leaping unfettered from an ingenuous soul,
the first time I found you here, dreaming of your own youth
upon a golden-hazed sea.
I was young enough then to believe all the promises of spring, to feel without fear,
so that the untested ardor of my overfull heart raced forth to greet you
in sister-love, lavish as you in my warmth.
No check on the reins of joy, save a maiden modesty, beneath which glowed
the coals of a blossoming passion for life.
Oh, seventeen! To know once more your frank-eyed vision, your hopefulness
for all life’s love! I meet you here again, amid my flowers and trees,
see your winsome face smiling back at me across a score of years–
unfathomable chasm! Sorrows sleep there little dreamt of in your sweet simplicity.
But more mercies–oh, so many more–quickened and kindling to a blaze
by which my life is lighted.
You–whose quandaries could be settled over a cup of tea, whose starry eyes
thought to comprehend the universe with a span–you could not know
what wine the world had to offer,
or with what brooding love your heart would be plowed and sown. I’d not give
my dreams for yours, to have these losses unlearned or these mercies unmet.
No, not for the very stars your eyes had the witchery to command.
And yet, for all that, one liquid cadence, spilling in rapture from the throat of a bird,
swinging low over the golden grass with a flare of scarlet wing,
and I am undone.
Shot through by an envoy flashing past, while he, unmindful of my wound, trails
the music of my youth behind him in careless effulgence.
I rouse in rebellion, beating my wings against the cage of years,
courting folly in the midst of wisdom with a mad longing for all that is past.
But if time is relentless, eternity is its thief, stealing back all our hours
for one glorious whole, for which youth is but surety in pledge. If such
be the case–and joy itself teaches me it is so,
and beauty, and the clear eyes of a girl–then I’ll take such sweet stings and welcome,
with a smile for all they signify.
Twenty years between that day and this, and I come no more alone, hedged round
with fancy, eyes for none but my dreams. My heart has opened wide,
expanded, unfurled her reefed sails,
to welcome one other, dearer, o Island, than you, and you all the dearer in his light.
I’ve given the honeysuckle of my girlhood for a womanly profusion of
gardenia, spilling a fragrance unlooked for,
and safe visions have grown up into vagabondry,
even amid our quiet ways.
Lone bird no longer, I sail with him wing and wing, a twin-masted schooner,
lithe and lighthearted, running with the wind down all that ecstasy
of unknown ways.
Many paths through the sea, many points of sail our lot, becoming more his
and more my own as we chart our course through waters fair and fell.
And wander where we might, here kindly harbor awaits, where, resting
on the green bosom of an island, we will remember all your sweet love
and the selves that we are in your arms.
And so, Island-love, I give back your gifts, lifting my heart as freely as yours.
I’ve seen your marsh in full tide, offering up all that
blue to the sky–serene and trusting–
and so you have taught me to live, unafraid.