Rose Island

Thomas Palmer, Rose Island Lighthouse, 2000, photograph

This project involved a walk around Rose Island in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, its lighthouse, antiquated army munitions dump, egret nesting grounds, with photographer Thomas Palmer on a quiet summer afternoon, to capture history, solitude, and organic life of the island.


Oh for God's sake

they are connected


Muriel Rukeyser

Jamestown Ferry

Bastille Day, in the heat o’ the sun,

we take the Jamestown Ferry to Rose Island,

to a dry and distant sand where

no soldiers stand–No Hessians,

No Highlanders, No Virgin Islanders,

No Redcoat grenadiers–

only a bevy of girls in training bras,

graduates from Girl Scouts

who hand out hard hats to

Thomas and me, because we are going to search

the core of the island for the plink

of Apollo's lyre, find the path of Orpheus,

down, down to beloved Eurydice, or try to see

the pink of sunrise a boy in a coma spies

when he wakes from weeks of moonsleep.

All we know is that—we can’t look back.

We've come to Rose Island to check it out,

to tour an earthly paradise in a cyclone season,

to ogle at the sixteen kingdoms of what's alive:

sweat bees, smelt and menhaden, turquoise lichen,

skate eggs, dandelion greens, foul-mouthed

grizzled sea robins, gristle on a fishbone washed up

onto the bleached beach, grass shrimp mating

to the sound of a thousand riveters as they rivet

along the battered hull of a battleship of war,

the Battleship Massachusetts in Battleship Cove,

encephalitic tsetse flies at the game of love,

a coterie of turtle doves that spirals up

into the gale-force sea winds off East Africa,

spent fuel-oil canisters, groggy waking

sea lion pups—or are they kittens—a cup of lard,

a Savarin coffee can, a painter’s palette caught

in sump pumps of the lighthouse, as two bald eagles

soar the vault of New England sky and nest below

the I-beam shrapnel from the Jamestown Bridge,

exploded, imploded, slow-motion burn and crash,

fallen to the bay floor the foot of cold Dutch Island,

or to see stripers, large-mouth bass, dogfish,

the night-goggle vision flight path of the Io moth.

We try to sniff out phytoplankton so misnomered

by the Greeks that it catches fire at sunset,

bioluminescent, we think to walk the Seven Seas

in search of dark and oil-spilled matter,

just as we head for everything that’s nameable,

anything to talk about, talk around, see in our minds’ eye

as something that lives without our seeing it,

as long as it leads to some old mermaid's tomb.

Underwater flounder stir where we get off; across

Rose Island nothing moves unless it’s in the air.

It's hot as hell, it’s near penumbral, except

for the black-backed gull who wings us away

from her bunker lair at the island's craggy foot,

where the blue grass sings an ode to now.

Her bird croak drives us away from our daughters,

screeching, what is a man? or how can we slow

down metamorphic time? She steers us

to the cannon mouth of mad King George,

to another bread-and-sugar revolution.

We shout our own names at our echoes,

as glib and lofty oystercatchers, preening

their roseate gullets, pick at scallops

and blue whale krill in the shoals, where

a Navy's fish torpedo targets the Bahamas.

Barefoot now, we back-step

into doubt, desire, and diligence,

wondering why the ocean’s pall

is as blue-gray as our daughters’ eyes.

Nine Cities

Green flies, toad-fish, sand-flecked sandwiches.

Lines of lime and chalk stone reveal

the nine cities of Newport, the 3200

Bohemian villages of Manahatto,

the crystalline oases of the Gobi,

the rantings of a two-eyed Cyclops,

living in a cave beneath Sardinia.

We bend to the radiant, curving sun of Ptolemy,

we listen for the beating of the chambered heart

of Rose Island, which thrums through

the labyrinth library world of Alexandria.

We finger termite bole-dust where banshees sleep,

kick up the dust of trilobites dumped by

ice slag of the Pleistocene. Cicada larvae,

flakes of semen, Surinam skullcap is what

we scrawl on the lime-white walls not readable

at all, prehistoric shadows of some idea of poetry.

Dreadnought–dreadlocks–leaky hogsheads

of Bermuda rum…. a ton of memories shocked

into a familiar, beer-dazed, psilocybin silence.

I see a Prohibition rum boat, The Black Duck––

yawing up East Passage to make the lee of a leering

Cormorant Rock, where the ship Mozelle

went down to thirteen fathoms. Later

a container ship of Teddy Bears breaks up

at Goosewing Beach: Londoners and

Wampanoag Indians are still at war with oars

and pikes and kayaks. An Indian princess—

Queen Weetamoe—splashes in the bay chock full

of Edwardian wrecks. An unexploded

depth charge scars the reddening sky, and along

a lonesome promontory, pelicans frenzy with

Arctic terns, blue-backed skimmers, golden-eye.

My friend is busy snapping up crag shots

with a battered old Minolta

and a sleepy hand, while I try to get

the Metropolitan opera out of my head, so I

can THINK, put spoken music into the walk

of channeled whelk to Moonstone Beach.

The pen promises nothing: Longfellow

frowns at me from afar, as Thomas and I try

to teach a laughing gull who's boss, tossing

eelgrass and iridescent kelp on

a moldering fire, leaving the chick

to his wanton pacing atop a Navy duck blind,

leaving lightships to pass to Providence and night.

Barefoot now, we back-step

into doubt, desire, and diligence,

wondering why rotten piers

are as blue-gray as our daughters’ eyes.

Fall River

Halfway to the source is the city of the dinner pail,

where Roger Williams penned his Key to the Languages

of America—the 7-11s, video bookstores, Satanic cults,

echoes of the killing fields of Phnom Penh, the egotism

of an Anabaptist burning scotch broom.

In another hundred years, England will torch

Thames Street's downtown sailor bars,

an asylum for the deaf and the dumb,

made over into military schools for kids

on their way to Havana, on the USS Maine.

Because of a thickening fog, a century's last eclipse

cannot be seen—except in Eastern Bucharest.

We look up: John-John's wreck of a seaplane

is tugged upriver. Stopping for water,

we watch as spoonbills feed.

In my pocket, I’ve got shards of a compass rose,

I have a sextant to sight any polar stars.

Sea foam floods the water, adds to the beauty

we've come to discover in a bottle or a shell, a twisted

mass of rusty train track for torpedoes.

A bell buoy clangs, a red-jibbed schooner

catches at a headwind, threads its way like

Thomas's one-legged cat, to the catwalk of the bridge.

I remove the mask of Apollo: we eat two apples

and a plum. Olduvai Gorge is all around us,

so is a Hairy Ainu cranium that comes

from the Sea of Japan. Baboons and dogs,

a stolen pup as sentry: guarding the simian clan

against the moonless threat of pack dogs.

Bone dust, bone tools, bone yards for the albatross,

whose wingspan is a bridge to other continents

and other times. We dream of Ramapithecus,

stone-cutters, the stains of Cain and Abel.

There are sonic booms above us, and undersea

a REMUS drone crawls the floor, preparing

for Umm Qasar, a yellow bell with hands,

searching the sand for mines and car parts.

Beyond the wrecks of 18th century slavers,

egrets nest far back in the salt-spray beach rose,

resting before their flyway to the Upper Nile.

Barefoot now, we back-step

into doubt, desire, and diligence,

wondering why a sailboat’s spinnaker

is as blue-gray as our daughters’ eyes.


Black-crested cormorants, drying their wings,

look like emissaries at the death of Isis.

They thrive on pomegranate-colored waves,

deaf and dumb to all but time's

slight ebb towards noon's quiver.

The red tide’s crimson now, the reef off

Hog Island harbors the Dead Sea Scrolls,

the Negev Desert, in the heart of the Holy Land,

is alive with see-through scorpions,

and as we stop to drink, a boy is jumping from

the Narrows Bridge as we speak.

These are Rochambeau's weeds–

his unknown Jacobin soldiers

from Brittany, floating up canoe roads

of the Pequots, to Mount Wachusett,

to Mary Rowlandson, to King Philip’s throne

at the summit of Mount Hope. This is No-Man's-Land.

Niemandsland. Tierra de Nadie.

Picture the English occupiers, an evacuation

of the burning city. But Rose Island—

a pork chop spit of land in Narragansett Bay

is everything at once its town and seawalls aren’t:

the quiet a philosopher named Berkeley found

in mackerel clouds of Portsmouth. Wild fish runs

of squeteague and shad and haddock

are all of what's left of Phillip's wrath.

Here's staph, loose strife–a languid look

on Thomas’s face is enough to squash

whatever thoughts I had of heading home.

Here we're alone in a children's

fairy tale, Thumbelina, where water

feeds whales and a hundred

elephants take opium, a penal code

inscribing moral epithets on skin.

The girls have all gone home;

Atlantic cod are spawning

somewhere else. A leper island's

quarantined its cholera crew: no heroes

wanted, just a single-engine crop duster

circling cornfields, veering to the polar North.

But, barefoot now, we back-step

into doubt, desire and diligence,

wondering why the Irish moss

is as blue-gray as our daughters’ eyes.

Walk and Talk

Look at Mozart's face in the mountainside.

See that Miantonomi's fort will be an underwater

grotto soon–dollarfish and moon crabs

will own this rock the lighthouse leans on.

Disheveled now from the noontime sun,

I sit below a rampart, trying to remember

how many men or women fought

to raise a Hoosier flag over a shit-house,

shining white like a shroud across the bay,

white buildings, Hart Crane's elegy,

a lighthouse run by a keeper and a matron,

just when Jackson's army led the Cherokee

from Tennessee to Oklahoma, a trail of tears,

sopped full of gin, insane, infirm, and poor,

to pen them in on game-farm reservations.

Talking, not talking, grasping at straws, lolling up a hill.

Pot-bellied Hemingways, we are lost again,

lost to the impossible wood snipe.

Thomas snips images out of the cat-tail

as we climb to a pillbox where

German prisoners of war learned

Portuguese for sassafras and yew.

I think our thoughts are weeds,

caught by the Indian Ocean,

songs of laughing pilot fish,

booming below the Arctic ice.

Beyond foxhole and pillory,

beach-goers off a Boston Whaler

are bent on drinking and petting–forget about

tin tonnage or the terrors of the cerebellum.

Suddenly it's winter. A snow sloop follows the trades.

I like the names of ships that hit this port-

of-call: British Ariel, Amazon, and Cerberus,

who bit the seas with molasses-mouth,

with Nubian boys as ballast, slim

frigate birds skimming along where

the sun dims, me thinking now

that it's three. We check for fiddler crabs

and head back to the ferry dock. The oaks

are only as old as the memory of millionaires

who've made their money in horse glue.

You know that Henry James walked here

with a silver cane. Turning to words,

I hear Thomas plunge into water off the pier.

Barefoot now, we back-step

into doubt, desire and diligence,

wondering why the cliffs of slate

are as blue-gray as our daughters’ eyes.

High Tide

I walk wide of Thomas’s camera’s field

of vision, on tiptoes peer back at the city

where Poe drank too much to sing to Annabel Lee,

you know, in a tomb in the sounding sea.

Barrels of Greek olives

from Tenerife roll in, hob nails

from Black River mills

wash up by shotgun shells,

prophylactics, squibs of gum.

Gold is hammered into paper: the pebble beach

is a book that reads self-love,

self-government, self-sale;

the Fates seen in a washed-up

Fall River blown-glass bottle of milk.

Inside a shack, I look out a portal to the rising Dog Star.

By days, it serves to thread all southwest winds

the Narragansetts thought were conduits

to the dark, to the souls of certain sailors,

Ishmael, Mehetabel, those from Curacao

and the Azores, from present-day Liberia.

In a Madagascan braille of geologic time,

these mansard roofs are Louis XVI's legacy.

It takes sturgeon, sand shark, eel and osprey

to do the Viking dance when night retreats.

We trek up to Eisenhower's beach shack,

far from the manor at Fort Adams,

far from summer White House lilies

in the year both of us were born.

Once ground zero for the army,

grandfather to a flock of ibises,

the hovel now is shat upon by egrets,

in shade at vespers. By four, the moon

has already risen, we're bidden

towards home–to Island Arts,

to daughters coming home from camp,

our not-so-youngish eyes mirrored in the

horseshoe crabs who hump near shore.

The two of us want something more.

Barefoot now, we course the mudflats

eyeing the spiral of an IUD

where cavalry would sleep off sin,

midnights howling to wolverines

and garbage scows. A spiracle pumps

in the heart of a manta ray–the helix of life

we're looking out for. We thwart

any impulse to freeze like deer

in headlights, like the ice block tons

on Easton Pond before there

was any Roman Pool or carousel:

each architrave in town still shadowy.

We skinny-dip, head around the lip

of an ebb low tide and picture-frame the dockside.

Barefoot still, we back-step

into doubt, desire and diligence,

wondering why the gathering clouds

are as blue-gray as our daughters’ eyes.

Sea Grape

A bottle of Mazola oil floats past a barnacled shipwreck dory,

by a field of yellow seagull legs, the unforgotten story,

tons of schist, granite, mica gleaming

at the spurge and knotweed

that bury the fallen, corrugated sheds

once used for storing TNT. Housed here

are the books we've read to remember

how to curtly smile at a skull. Curtly too

I see our images in a pool of blazing benzene.

We scavenge as we walk, we are the scavengers

of Time: we pick up tens of brittle stars.

The life of scavengers, when seen from beyond

Earth's atmosphere, surely must resemble an egg,

an orange, and consist of tenderness, tedium, or tar.

With whimbrels screeching, we bushwhack

into the rose bush thicket that forms

a barrier for the brooding, F-necked birds.

There’s filigree, near embroidery, in the anthracite

that speckles the shore, glinting late day's light.

We start to see things not in front of us: a Siberian

wilderness moon, a coyote at the water pump,

a cecropia moth emerging, the moment we fall asleep...

Sea grape delivers us, the wanderers,

back to our cedared Ithaca, or at least the lair

that Circe filled with pigs and lions and men.

The lavender reeks, its luxuriantly creeps

into the arms of starfish, seahorse racetracks,

accordion fish sacs, the prickling cord grass.

Here in the rocks, green gathers foothold,

flesh and fell, in the absence of talk or theater.

The silence is a vulture peering into

a make-piece soul, violent, unrushed, subsiding.

A calculus of silence, a picture of what's possible

where no Phoenicians tread,

where Dagon of the sea sings high

and blithe across the vanishing dunes.

Barefoot now, we back-step

into doubt, desire and diligence,

wondering why the speckled crab shells

are as blue-gray as our daughters’ eyes.

Beyond the Breastworks

Outdistanced by ants, their rising and falling fortunes,

we miss the ferry twice–due

to the avarice of crabs, the stink of mussels,

the taste of samphire and panic grass.

Tourists, in from Indiana, have left us

to our capsized water tower,

its greedy black hull asleep, as we gaze

at the myth of our making,

the hot day, the desire to say

only just enough to remember

what it was we came for, to celebrate

fresh waters in the bay as once they were,

when fishermen took what they needed

and left all the rest to the sea.

Beyond the breastworks, skeet fields,

the mines and rifle range,

we find a smashed-in Quonset hut,

a mansion made from Kilkenny sod,

and one, elliptical stone tower atop

a stony hill where the War of 1812

is all but visible, where a soldier named

Toussard—adjutant to Lafayette—

walks his bloody rounds at midnight.

We discover a hermit thrush dozing

in the sun, and the shriveled skin

of a rock-smashed milk snake, a bleached-out

superhero comic book, and lots

of seedy guano from a migratory flier.

At last! After walking around the island

and into its thicket heart, we find the tomb

of Orpheus, a fallout shelter from the ‘60s,

built on the fear of the Bay of Pigs on the eve

of an intercontinental war. Whatever we've

come to uncover, we have to go down

and pay our dues. It’s deep

and dark down there. Thomas goes in first.

I’ll wait for him to re-emerge, then go in to see

how it is to recognize a god, a poor boy

with a limp and grape leaves in his hair,

too beautiful for his own damn good.

Maybe it’s a bottomless pit that leads to China

or a tunnel to cross from East to West Berlin.

A DMZ in North Korea. Persian armies

flanking a hill at Sardanopolis,

with the ghost of the leader Darius,

positioned to lead the charge.

Into the Valley of Death…

But I have to wait for Thomas,

who’s down there taking pictures still.

It's probably too dark for anything to come out.

He's down there shooting at underworld

or otherworldly stars or galaxies, all without

a ray of light. Here he comes now,

I look to the land and to the shore–

the ferryman's waving, our flag is up,

there's isn't time for me to go down–

it's time to go back to the mainland.

No longer barefoot, we back-step

into doubt, desire and diligence,

wondering why the shadow of Rose Island

is as blue-gray as our daughter's eyes.