MARSH HARRIER by Greg Rappleye

—Circus aerugnosus

—Nora Gannon (1881)


I need not name them—the poet who lured

me to the granary near Belmullet and took me

against the barley sacks. Nor the louche painter

who sought my portrait and had much more

in the startling sea-light at Ciede Fields,

and the several others among that rakish group,

until, by the Eve of St. Foillan’s Day,

no one knew who might be the Da, though

swayed by my condition, all thought it best

to have the child out. So a plate was passed

among the six, a collection made of farthings

and shillings and half-crowns—fair-as-fair,

from each according to his abilities, etc.,

along with a pity’s pence from my cousin, and it was

off from Westport in Alf Bannion’s herring sloop,

not slowing to lower nets in the days it took

for passage to the docks at Plevison,

in Brittany, one of the Seven Celtic Nations,

so told. Left among the midwives of that place,

both crone and near-physician, I was given teas

of artemesia and penny-royal, and when, after two days

the plum had not sprung its grip, I was face-ragged

with chloroform, and what was done was done.

Though I bled a bit, a poultice was applied

and soon enough, I dried.  For a fortnight,

I rested, staring out across the thorny gorse,

then walking slowly along the cliffs at Cap Frehel,

near the abandoned light tower, with the gray

Atlantic keening, slap-dashing the rocks below.

On the agreed day, I went back to the docks

to find Alf’s sloop, packed with German rifles,

black-powder cartridges, and a box of ten

Spanish revolvers (one of which I kept),

all swamped about with nets and silvered herring.

Was it best I made the trip? The men got

what they’d come for and anyway, I was told

the child was a girl and would have been of little use

in the dreamed-of rising. As memorial, I’ve kept

only this short-list of Breton birds—guillemots,

red-billed choughs, stonechats, and a marsh harrier

among them, the last of which I’d watched looping and

stunting above a boggy field, diving at a red fox

that trotted out among the willow-strife, the rushes

and the sandy hummocks, patiently searching out

the marsh harrier’s earth-nested young.

Greg Rappleye’s work has appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, Shenandoah, and other literary journals. His second book of poems, A Path Between Houses (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), won the Brittingham Prize in Poetry. His third book, Figured Dark (University of Arkansas Press, 2007), was first runner-up for the Dorset Prize and was published in the Miller Williams Poetry Series.

Photo by Dana Critchlow on Unsplash.