“Penwith”–A Poem from My First Collection

This is one of the more recent pieces collected in my first book of poems, Sunk in Your Shipwreck. The dominant trope of the collection is the archetypal movement of “pilgrimage,” and this poem falls directly in that ambit.

In 2006, my older brother and I went on a fairly random two-week trek around Ireland and Great Britain, focusing on southwestern Ireland, London, and Cornwall. We have ancestors from Cornwall (around Camborne), and we spent a good bit of our UK time in the western-most part of Cornwall, Penwith.

The poem’s text follows the audio file of my reading, and I hope you enjoy (and visit Penwith someday!).

 

Penwith 

for ancestors 

  

We railed it from Holyhead to Birmingham, 

sleeping splayed across three seats like vagrants, 

a Welsh child crawling down luggage racks 

to case us out, hills rolling by outside. 

Eyelids like metal traps resisting peregrinations 

but the world springs back to form and clarity 

over trestles in mine-ruin Redruth, 

downtown Camborne—and little did we suspect 

ancestral hamlet Gwillanwarthas a stone’s throw away. 

Our uphill tramp along Penzance soaked cement 

to the wrong hostel almost too much to take. 

Back down petunia-lined lanes of thatched roofs— 

who knew they still took the time?  

Bags thrown on bunks that make you sad 

how wet they are—we’re told that’s just Cornwall, mate— 

and our clothes, our shoes did not dry for four days’ time, 

despite the hostel dryer’s heroic and repeated attempts. 

The rock, the seabirds too many to number and shades of difference, 

another car cramped and rented, sitting in inverted seats, 

but the same stick: we had that. 

And you drove up the curb off Alverton Street 

to the horror of several Cornish folk passing by 

to their morning papers and pasties. 

We kept the sea to our left on our circumambulation 

always moving, the next fountain, the next cairn 

and dolmen and churchyard, the next pond with 

white streaks of swan and springs swallowed up 

by time, padding up the A-30 to Bodmin Moor, 

making wrong turns down claustrophobic lanes 

to Lamorna Cove with housewives’ sidelong glances 

as they potted plants with strangers driving slowly past 

and tossing off the world, the forest strange in these parts and sopping. 

Why did we careen down backways, narrow and hard as rock 

to find standing stone rings in farmers’ fields, 

searching miry paths hung with moss for baptistries 

left standing since the Reformation? Why the restless 

surge to moor and field and shore in damp and rain, 

in hard grey midmornings and no food ’til teatime? 

The cracked and bristling grass that welcomed our feet, 

the draughts from Iron Age wells and flowering club moss? 

How can we know? The last bleak 

stretch of path down unknown woods, opening out into clearings 

lined with mud and lichen, into centuries, then turning ’round, 

was more than enough—circling Penwith into the dawn  

of a metallic wind-swept eternity.

 

 

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