By day the monks worked setting the abbey’s footers,
girding the new faith’s white claim on ancient ground.
Each night wind and water howled back from the sea,
a black hurricane ripping tackle and block away
from the tenons of new mind, tearing Heaven
with a drowning shriek that crashed the abbey down.
Come morning the monks found Christ in wreckage,
swooning, as it were, in Time. Again the monks began
rebuilding, getting as far as beginning every night: Again
come midnight the banshees of spout and bolt would roar,
cracking the brain of future and spiraling the host again.
For weeks the same diabolic of founding, man caught
between the polemic of mind and insane: Finally Columba
their leader, future abbot and finally saint decided to
harrow the night himself on a knoll above the site,
to witness for himself both art and author of its ripe
destruction. And there, in the black seeling of midnight,
the thing again arose, delved by the angry god
of the sea: Black Kate, the gill-witch of the Hebrides.
Appearing in the torment of whirling black flame
Kate shouted to the saint that blood price was due:
A man buried alive standing up in the belly of the pit,
human footer to the god of the night’s unholy fit.
And so lots were cast (some say Oran volunteered)
and the hallowed man went into the harrow’s well,
drowning in dirt until he sang the Psalms no more.
Maybe my entire life’s arc compresses down to
this old physic for a god’s blue swamp of vertigo.
These words my well, my suffocation divine,
the blood of confusion become sacrament wine.
When meter catches pace and rhyming gets tight
and the placebo angel takes over in saintly flight,
smothering my angst with bosomy blue wavelets,
sand packed hard over my face, one cheek against
the cross that once topped Iona’s abbey spire.
Sea and earth both murmuring against the tide,
grinding down these bones into still finer grain,
lining the marrow of the buried god, this awful
remedy for ancient rounds, this hollow singing stain.
A swooning shaman dreams of bison in the paleolithic cavern of Lascaux, ca 15,000 BCE.
Submitted to Real Toads’ Tuesday Platform
A folk cure for epilepsy in Scotland was to bury alive a black cock on the spot of the first fit. This seems a remnant of the pagan practice of foundation sacrifice as evidenced by the legend of Saint Oran, patron saint of my Well. As in the story retold above, Oran was sacrificed to appease an angry hurricane of old deity and so the Iona Abbey walls could stand.
Angus MacOdrum of Uist was a black-haired Celt of Fomorian origin and one of the seal-tribe; Saint Columba encountered the great black seal on a shore of Iona one day. Angus asked the saint “in fine Gaelic” if he had seen his wife Kathleen, a good Christian woman who had been lured into wave by Angus a thousand years before to become his bride and sea-witch. She could invoke the cataract of storm with her song, the bane of fishermen and sailors of the Hebrides. Columba replied that he hadn’t seen the witch; Angus then cursed the saint in salty old Gaelic and leapt back in the crashing bath, taking with him the haunting resonance of song.
My father began his Order of Saint Oran in 1982, the year of my first grand-mal seizure. (It was also the year of the dedication of the St. Columba Chapel there, which sits in the woods not far from the St. Oran Bell tower.) I wonder if my three-decades long fascination with the Oran-Columba myth, most recently through Oran’s Well, roots in all the seizures & migraines that have crawled up from my brainstem over the years, demanding a physic beyond Carbamazepine and Maxalt and Imitrex, calling for another descent into the Well—standing up and singing all the way.
Such verbal gambits in the land of the dead may ground the future; let’s hope so. The spiraling ruin of the Twin Towers are fifteen years in the grave, and history still seems mired there. What song do we bury in that broken, unspeakable place?