“The Bleak and Wild Desolate Shore” describes a beach along the Olympic Peninsula and tells of the indigenous Makah people whom I took an interest in during 2017. The free verse poem relies on imagery. I found the book The Sea Is My Country by Josh Reid and the Makah Cultural and Research Center to be good sources of information about Makah culture.
Along the very tip of the Olympic Peninsula—
harbored by sea stacks,
washed by the ablutions of frequent rain,
and scrutinized by the salmon-keen eyes of fierce eagles
who sit perched with feathers made wet and salty by ocean spray—
lies a beach spliced by piney evergreens and the wintry Pacific Ocean.
It wears as its mantle a cloak of becoming fog:
wide filaments of thick mist wreathe the beach’s shoulders,
narrow wisps tuck into the crevices of teeming pine,
and, like a stole, that pale brume softly embraces
the necks of the majesterial, protruding stones.
The beach’s curvaceous, serene form lies upon its side
with its back to the land, knees tucked up against the tide,
with its stone lips ever kissing the briny, icy waves.
Water is its heart. In the rain, in the sea and spume,
throbs the lifeforce that begets the beach’s growth and decay,
shapes its projecting stone fingers, and creates its austere beauty.
In the night, the wan moon with its grey craters
beams down on sword ferns glowing nearly phosphorescent
and flashes on the bottle-gold eyes of great horned owls.
The moon turns milky the evergreen forest that adorns
the beach’s hips, and the moon tints the bleached driftwood
from day’s ivory to an iridescent alabaster of night.
That moon casts upon the beach’s cliffs a lustre
that speaks of shining rock, and, with its hushing silence,
it seems to make the surf’s voice boom.
With wind, the beach’s trees move sinuously and with susurrant song.
In the moonlight, upon the beach’s damp and footless shore,
lie whips of bull kelp, washed up and drying,
with algae blades like Medusa’s chaotic hair, their origins
in the marine forests of stone mantlepieces and rocky shelves.
The crows cackle madly in their rookery, the wind whishes,
surf roars, eagles scream, seals honk and bark and cry,
clouds morph then rework their hues, tides ebb and rise,
marshy mushrooms rise and rot with the sun’s circling,
the fragrance of evergreen sap freshens the air, salmon run,
gulls bed their island colonies with bones, osprey preen and fish,
glossy baneberries bear fruit like murderous scarlet pearls,
and purple mountain saxifrage color the cliffs.
In antiquity, the Makah resided here
using yarrow for childbirth, red cedar for dugout canoes,
yellow cedar for clothing, spermaceti for candles,
stones buffed by water to high polish and wound
by withy willows for anchor stones, having halibut for dinner,
sea otter teeth and whale fins for art, cherry bark for basketry
which tightens as it dries, and bones for awls and adze handles.
They used tides and stones and fences to catch fish,
laid white clam shells on the tidal floor for better contrast
to see the fish in their traps. On a crisp, windy spring night
six hundred years ago, the tribe gathered on the damp beach
after partaking in a feast of salmon, octupus, and halibut
for a sacred ritual conducted to send its rowers and harpooners offshore
in a twelve-seater canoe to hunt whale. A chief chanted,
sang, worked the crowd into a frenzy before the night fire,
and when the throng felt most animated, the chief
poured whale oil onto the fire, so that it soared, crackling to
a crescendo, rose like the wave of a tsunami, and
in the dark night the bellowing and shrieking
of the Makah were swallowed up by the forest.
Over this desolate beach there is a kind of peacefulness:
gently lapping waves, the soft pattern of rain,
the rustle of a crow’s wings. It appears desolate, Shi Shi,
here in winter.