The Poem as Coracle and Diving Bell


For three days and nights St. Oran voyaged
from his grave in the Iona abbey footers
seeking the sea god isle to isle to isle
til he found the kingdom beneath the sea.

from legends of St. Oran, whose feast day was Oct. 27.

There, there is nothing else
but grace and measure
Richness, quietness, and pleasure.

— Charles Baudelaire, “L’Invitation du Voyage”


This crossing and descending
line both travels and rappels,
extending toward shores
& descending to bottoms
undreamed of in the
catalogue. I sail; I dive;
I keep the pulse alive
by measuring surf-hallowed
ground while at the same
time harrowing the leagues
basalt angels propound.

There are ports
that drift and dream
all night of shores
too far to reach, bobbing
the boats docked tied there
with swells of sweetest booty–
gold chapels and moon castles,
white birds choraling God
on trees which take
up islands, steaming
plates of meat and ardor
laid out on tables that
no human hands have cooked
nor human wombs have delved.

There are salt embraces
in the sound of those
far crash-and-booming waves,
the welcome of farewells,
an invitation to travel
down the deepest brines
of the heart, mines of
pure abyss darker and
wilder than any kiss
than I have known.

But will, this dark
wet morning insists,
wafting lucent cleavage
in the next blue door
I find as the song gets
down under the ground
between I and Thou,
their surficial seem.

Thus I peruse the ages
and carouse the beds,
dislodge gold psalters
from beneath the sleeping
head of a great blue
dragon circled round
the next island in the main,

a wild not found on
any chart on any ship
except the one inside
my dream. I voyage forth
to froth and foam
past all marges
to the sea god’s throne:

I dive deep along the
descending mile of
the iceberg, tracing
god’s old frozen bones
until the poem’s
heel at last strikes
the shell-encrusted lingua
of first silver things.

Such motions keep me
square on an unrelenting
thrash of ocean, level
between island and doom,
exceeding both coracle
and bell, to toil and toll
a sweeter shore beneath
the strolling moil of swells.


A coracle is a one-person boat popular throughout the British Isles since prehistory. There is an entire catelogue of Irish folktales called Voyages where heroes traveled across the water to the Otherworld; in the Christian age these became tales of monks in coracles commending themselves to God and the wave in the “white martyrdom” of self sacrifice (akin to desert and forest anchorites), sailing forth in search of the Island of the Everliving – Paradise.




From Iona, by Fiona McCleod (William Sharp)
London: William Heinemann, 1912

It is commonly said that the People of the Sidhe dwell within the hills, or in the underworld. In some of the isles their home, now, is spoken of as Tir-na-thonn, the Land of the Wave, or Tir-fo-Tuinn, the Land under the Sea.

But from a friend, an Islander of Iona, I have learned many things, and among them, that the Shee no longer dwell within the inland hills, and that though many of them inhabit the lonelier isles of the west, and in particular The Seven Hunters, their Kingdom is in the North.

Some say it is among the pathless mountains of Iceland. But my friend spoke to an Iceland man, and he said he had never seen them. There were Secret People there, but not the Gaelic Sidhe.

Their Kingdom is in the North, under the Fir-Chlisneach, the Dancing Men, as the Hebrideans call the polar aurora. They are always young there. Their bodies are white as the wild swan, their hair yellow as honey, their eyes blue as ice. Their feet leave no mark on the snow. The women are white as milk, with eyes like sloes, and lips like red rowans. They fight with shadows, and are glad; but the shadows are not shadows to them. The Shee slay great numbers at the full moon, but never hunt on moonless nights, or at the rising of the moon, or when the dew is falling. Their lances are made of reeds that glitter like shafts of ice, and it is ill for a mortal to find one of these lances, for it is tipped with the salt of a wave that no living thing has touched, neither the wailing mew nor the finned sgAdan nor his tribe, nor the narwhal. There are no men of the human clans there, and no shores, and the tides are forbidden.

Long ago one of the monks of Columba sailed there. He sailed for thrice seven days till he lost the rocks of the north; and for thrice thirty days, till Iceland in the south was like a small bluebell in a great grey plain; and for thrice three years among bergs. For the first three years the finned things of the sea brought him food; for the second three years he knew the kindness of the creatures of the air; in the last three years angels fed him. He lived among the Sidhe for three hundred years. When he came back to Iona, he was asked where he had been all that long night since evensong to matins. The monks had sought him everywhere, and at dawn had found him lying in the hollow of the long wave that washes Iona on the north. He laughed at that, and said he had been on the tops of the billows for nine years and three months and twenty-one days, and for three hundred years had lived among a deathless people. He had drunk sweet ale every day, and every day had known love among flowers and green bushes, and at dusk had sung old beautiful forgotten songs, and with star-flame had lit strange fires, and at the full of the moon had gone forth laughing to slay. It was heaven, there, under the Lights of the North. When he was asked how that people might be known, he said that away from there they had a cold, cold hand, a cold, still voice, and cold ice-blue eyes. They had four cities at the four ends of the green diamond that is the world. That in the north was made of earth; that in the east, of air; that in the south, of fire; that in the west, of water. In the middle of the green diamond that is the world is the Glen of Precious Stones. It is in the shape of a heart, and glows like a ruby, though all stones and gems are there. It is there the S?dhe go to refresh their deathless life.

The holy monks said that this kingdom was certainly Ifurin, the Gaelic Hell. So they put their comrade alive in a grave in the sand, and stamped the sand down upon his head, and sang hymns so that mayhap even yet his soul might be saved, or, at least, that when he went back to that place he might remember other songs than those sung by the milk-white women with eyes like sloes and lips red as rowans. “Tell that honey-mouthed cruel people they are in Hell,” said the abbot, and give them my ban and my curse unless they will cease laughing and loving sinfully and slaying with bright lances, and will come out of their secret places and be baptized.”

They have not yet come.

This adventurer of the dreaming mind is another Oran, that fabulous Oran of whom the later Columban legends tell. I think that other Orans go out, even yet, to the Country of the Sidhe. But few come again. It must be hard to find that glen at the heart of the green diamond that is the world; but, when found, harder to return by the way one came.


Submitted for  d’Verse Poets’ Conflation Challenge.


Filed under Archetypal Mythology, Celtic myth, Creativity, Culture, Death, Devotions, Immrama, Iona, Mind, Music, Myth and Archetype, Oran, Otherworlds, poetics, Poetry, Post-Christianity, Shamanism, Spirituality, The Sea, Voyagers, Water-Folk

16 responses to “The Poem as Coracle and Diving Bell

  1. I think this is one of your most beautiful writes, Brendan, a poem, a song, an apologea of sorts. The language lilts especially well, phraseology is lovely:

    travels and rappels . . .
    dive . . . pulse alive . . .
    gold chapels and moon castles, . . .
    meats of ardor . . .
    white birds choraling God . . .
    god’s old frozen bones . . .
    moil of swells.

    You have not yet known the wildest kiss (but pretty wild still, I’d say) but as you peruse and browse and dive and delve, I am ever left hoping and believing that you will.

    • Thanks Ruth — I think the point of bottomlessness is that, in poetry at least, there can be no limit. Else, once we reached it, what would there be to do but turn around and sail home?

  2. you do make the words dance sir…in a rhythm that is most conducive tot he sea…it is the little touches that get me…the meat that touched no mans hands or plumb the womans womb…surficial…very nice brendan

  3. Lucky for us this ocean of inspiration is greater than imagining. I too think it may be one of your most beautiful songs. I am content to listen to its pregnant myth-making, plaintive longing, and gorgeous timber. Compelling and affecting poetry that voyages into the monumental.

  4. I can soak in your words and myths until it drenches and lifts me up.
    Beautiful journey and yearning expressed so well specially these lines:

    There are salt embraces
    in the sound of those
    far crash-and-booming waves,
    the welcome of farewells,
    an invitation to travel
    down the deepest brines
    of the heart, mines of
    pure abyss darker and
    wilder than any kiss
    than I have known.

  5. hedgewitch

    I’ve now read the first stanza several times, and it’s such a perfect bait for the poem, the rhyme and rhythm subtle and delicate, yet strong as a steel cable, twitched just once and the hook sets, and so the reader is pulled, not up from the water(of mind, of legend, of imagination,) but down into it, across it, and through it, aboard the coracle, the little open womb, and in the seedpod of the bell. The process notes are as fascinating as the piece, with their telling of the Fair Folk. and the voyager who returns–I, like the author can’t imagine why, except the call of mortality and fate. For one who claims not to have know that kiss, you pass it on very well–in the stanza that begins ‘..I peruse the ages/and carouse the beds,…” and the last two stanzas are visually breathtaking, esp the penultimate one. A beautiful, mystical voyage where the soul learns to conflate diving with flying, the material world with the breath of gods.

    • Thanks H – those two motions (of coracle and diving bell) emulate best for me the passage of pen (or cursor) across and down the page. And the gods we find down there say the durndest things. (Like “Not Here!”) But actually, I thought you’d like the diving kitty most of all in the lead pic. Or maybe s/he is rappeling back up the leagues with Oran in tow. (Headline at the Daily Iona Times: “Cat Brought Me Back, Says 300-Year Old Voyager”) – B

      • hedgewitch

        Of course, my first critical instinct was to admire the cat, but your silly poem thing distracted me. I’m pretty sure s/he’s more focused on trying to figure out how to get out and eat the fish without getting wet than delving up some saintly but by now meatless bones. Though, of course, you never know. Sometimes these kitties have a hidden agenda.

  6. I love it all, every turn of word and phrase, and yet these words echo in my mind:

    a wild not found on
    any chart on any ship
    except the one inside
    my dream

    Yes! YES! Love this!

  7. conflation…yes…you are melting with the sea here and the borders blur… will soon be heading for the ocean and you stirred this yearning even more with your poem brendan..i need to feel these waves..

  8. Great consistent tone throughout — real pleasure to read — like a just right paced excursionary stroll. Beautiful!

  9. i like the mythical aspects of your sea faring voyager.

  10. The poem and the tale are both utterly enthralling, your illustrations are perfect, you demonstrate beautifully that end-rhymes are not the only kind, and I love your title. What a treat to find this post! It’s a wonderful and unusual example of conflation, too.

  11. So much to submerge the sub-conscious mind in… I loved:

    I dive deep along the
    descending mile of
    the iceberg, tracing
    god’s old frozen bones
    until the poem’s
    heel at last strikes
    the shell-encrusted lingua
    of first silver things.

  12. This is so lovely! It just washes over you.

    And, I can’t believe those honey-mouthed people haven’t come out to be “saved,” yet!

  13. I need to write a poem, but need more information on the format of a Blues poem or Affirmation poem. What exactly is a blues and affirmation poem? HELP!

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