Off Islander: Excerpts from a Nantucket Journal

Snow. Fire. Waves. The three hypnotists. Perhaps it is the incessant motion of each that keeps us staring or the deceptive domesticity (campfire; greeting card) beyond which, biding its time, waits danger.

June 25, 1977

Snow. Fire. Waves. The three hypnotists. Perhaps it is the incessant motion of each that keeps us staring or the deceptive domesticity (campfire; greeting card) beyond which, biding its time, waits danger. Now it’s the waves I watch: at Sconset, at Madaket, at Surfside. I think I have been seduced by an island. Not that I haven’t felt the same way about landscape before, but usually my choice is more original: an obscure patch of woods crowded with laurel, the view of the Kensico Reservoir at the spot where Route 22 curves due north, a tidal pond on the back side of Bethany Beach. We came to Nantucket Island by pure accident, when a few days we had to fill in New England after a scientific meeting coincided with a copy of “Moby Dick” left carelessly on the floor the night we made our plans. Nantucket: beloved of tourists and natives, photographers and youth hostelers, travel agents, bird watchers, fishermen, conservationists and of just about everyone who sets foot here. I might as well have fallen for a rock star. I even like these cobblestones, as treacherous as they are picturesque. And the two overweight men I am watching from my window in their cranberry colored pants embroidered with tiny whales make me smile instead of scoff, as if a totally charming circus act is being staged just for my benefit. The ocean, which is everywhere here, a bicycle ride away in any direction, is already making all its old claims. My eyes stray to the local newspaper, the Nantucket Inquirer Mirror, top-heavy with real estate ads. “House With Ocean View.” I have sworn we will never buy or build another house. Ira, who is sorting through old fishing gear, looks up, and I smile at him in guilt and nnocent foreboding.

June 26, 1911

They say that no one forgets how to ride a bicycle. Today we rent bicycles at a shop called Young’s and I climb on, filled with enthusiasm and old memories of pedaling around Harvard Square. Though I wobble along straight ahead, even the simplest turn is beyond me and, feeling acutely absurd, I climbed off and refused to try again. The shop is nice about giving us our money back, and I forget my humiliation soon enough as we drive around the island instead. The moors here are full of wildflowers, and only the poster we have bought for our daughter Rachel, “Protect Nantucket’s Wildflowers,” keeps me from stopping and picking some. Wild daisies are everywhere, and there are roses and heather, beach plum and cattails. Every few minutes Ira stops the car, and I know he has seen another hawk. “Did you see that one?” he asks, and I say yes, because maybe that is what I have almost seen out of the corner of my eye, and besides, I want to drive on. Sometimes I really do see one of the sparrow hawks, misnamed apparently, since they don’t eat sparrows. They have gray on their wings and small owl-like faces, and they perch on telephone wires or swoop low over the fields. And there are always gulls, just along the periphery of sight, at one point an orgy of gulls when we pass what turns out to be the dump.

Nantucket is a long, low island, and even when the sea is not visible you can smell it and feel it. We follow a dirt road that becomes narrower and narrower, and I begin to think that we will never emerge anywhere, never be able to turn the car around again, and then suddenly the ocean is right there in front of us. We get out and create a small circle of our belongings, laying claim to this tiny parcel of beach with our lunch. Eating on this spot somehow makes it ours, as if the ceremony of peeling an egg, of uncorking a bottle, could possibly domesticate such wildness. The sun is very hot, and we undress gradually, layer by layer, until we are down to bathing suits. I wonder if nude swimming is allowed on Nantucket. Can there be rules or apples in this Eden?

June 27, 1977

“The edges of ocean unravel like a thread that has caught on something sharp.” This line keeps trying to push its way into my poems, and it repeats itself in my head now as I lie on Dionis Beach, trying to concentrate on “The Odyssey,” which we have been reading aloud.

It’s not even a very good line. But it appeared in an early poem of mine called “Copenhagen Harbour,” again in my one attempt at haiku, and in a long narrative about the sea at Bethany, Delaware.

What is it about the ocean that obsesses me? I don’t fish in it or swim in it much, and though I am occasionally talked into going sailing, I usually become seasick.

For me the ocean is to be watched and listened to, not understood, only loved, and as fear is sometimes a part of true passion it is to be feared often, trusted only occasionally and always at one’s risk.

I would love to have a house by the sea. There is more than a bit of foolishness in this notion, and I hope I haven’t been influenced by seeing Jane Fonda in the movie “Julia” playing Lillian Hellman and typing furiously in a little room in a beach house, while the ocean roars away below. I believe at one point she threw her typewriter out the window, and perhaps it is only some such grand gesture I am longing for.

I try to concentrate on “The Odyssey” but find myself furious with Odysseus and his wanderings, irritated at Penelope and her endless patience, and worried about Telemachus leaving home so young.

“I think we should build a house here,” I say.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ira answers without looking up from the book. “We can’t possibly afford it.”

The beach is filling up with people, and I decide we should carry our gear further down the sand, away from this comparatively busy lifeguard station. Who needs a Hfeguard anyway, and what protection can he possibly be against the Sirens who are singing to me now?

About the Author

Linda Pastan

Linda Pastan’s ninth book of poems, “An Early Afterlife”, was published by Norton in 1995. She was Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1991 to 1995.

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