In 2019 my mother, artist Beth Tockey Williams, and I completed a collaborative Artist Residency for the Dry Tortugas National Park. We chased the rainbands of Hurricane Dorian down the coast of Florida, then took a four-hour ferry to Garden Key. We packed in our food, art supplies, and books, and spent three weeks living and working off the grid on Loggerhead Key. This residency allowed us to reconnect after years of separation when I had completed my studies, but also gave us time to remember why we create art in the first place. The death of my brother and our decade long search for solace guided us again and again to art and poetry, nature and empathy. Alone on this abandoned paradise, we were confronted with the harsh realities of climate change, ocean pollution, rapidly spreading coral disease, invasive species, and an apathetic administration. We wanted our final ekphrastic collection to highlight the beauty of the Dry Tortugas and the necessity of protecting our oceans, while also reminding us of the transformative connection between grief and nature.
I pull from tangled
pale claws nearly dust
to stash in my breast pocket.
Clittering china, I picture
a family of crab ghosts converging
over my pulse, ready to tuck
into their first bloody meal after death;
eye stalks sway in synchrony
raised in prayer to Sea, or
perhaps his brother, Sky.
mingling in my pocket,
I scoop out my heart
and permit you to feast.
Calypso’s Five Decade Soak
Soap suds storm porcelain edges
of the Gulf of Mexico,
making landfall at record speeds.
We leave the water on, think
she’ll turn it off herself.
Freckled & bruised, a soft island –
Calypso’s breast emergent in the wide bath.
Reef-ribbed, polyp-pored, kelp-curled,
skin flakes off in salts and sands.
How long can she hold her breath?
When our tub overflows
her sand-bar knees submerge.
Next the fortified elbows,
her lighthouse nose,
colorful Keys adorning her toes.
Plastic baubles swirl
& organs bleach,
skin peels off in scutes,
her hard-bright room sings
like a goblet as the waters rise.
An inch a year, soon a foot,
a meter, three. Our Calypso
lulled by heat, drowns.
Her heart? Brined in its own salts.
Still we do not stop the faucet.
Lightning is Dead
Then thunder comes
on shoulders of rain.
The roar you think
will taper off
so you stop to hear her out;
on she shakes & on.
Her bellow beats bereft
the balding palm, prickle pears
wag paddles in her face.
You hear her grief-ripples
from the thick-aired house,
windows agape, sills –
tongues for puddling.
She sobs through lunch
of jasmine rice &
coconut milk, sobs
through day marking papers
in blue-black strokes.
Even unto sleep, even once
rain has ceased, thunder
crawls down the dark hall
on her hands & knees.
The sea grape’s
many ears are broad
and full of mirth –
petite wax cups
steeped in adoration
of each skim and sweep
of the young sooty tern,
his scoop of tail,
on dark wing.
No wonder she raises
her round ears
to the storm. No wonder
she lets them flutter
and fold and perhaps,
one day, tear free.
Letter to a Ghost
Is it you rustling spider lilies,
observing gull-court on the rotten dock?
When I walk to Loggerhead Light to record solar data,
do you round our hammock, or wind or green coconuts?
Are you there (I want to know) as I skim waves
over yellow reef, hunkered down between brains
spinning tales to sea fans? Is it really you stepping bright
between my dreams or just lightning on the channel?
Does your hand reach over sea oats,
do your long blue fingers carry the scarce rain?
Are noddies your emissaries or moon jellyfish
who haunt me much like you do?
Is it your hum when I kiss my ear to conchs,
pink and bony fists I hold like your hand.
You plant messaged bottles for me in the sand.
Will I have to die before I can reply?
You haven’t met my mother
until you find her sun-pickled blonde,
salt-skin thigh deep in waves,
streaks of pastel dust on her face
exhaling sea pigments with the wind.
You haven’t heard my mother’s voice,
woodsy and cantering, unless it sunders sky:
cúmulo, cirrus, oranger than you’d think
when sun splits horizon or the new moon rises
over a deepening white-capped iris.
I never knew my mother’s first self
who navigated starlessly. Still, I see
the child of her sometimes; eyes closed
she hangs between the waves
each day her toes touch
less and less.
Unfathomed foam-limbed one, arouse long-hushed
aches – an eye, a laugh, the up-curled lip –
those many features scattered, now resound
undying against these shores. One thousand
times you’ve paused here, yet here again you stretch
exhaled upon the strand, but rush away
as in regret. Yes, regret like glass shards
within you, little wave, little ocean
cold and broken. Loose forth again your grief –
those soft-scruffed palms like keyhole sand dollars,
fingers sprawling fascinate whelk dainties;
you gave so generously. I miss them too,
those hands, the splash of them, castle-builders.
They would have grown, you know, lengthened
like spiny lobsters. Your love was caught,
I see it in you. As was mine. I’ve wrecked
once more, and though they may not be as long,
I give to you these hands.
Wading in the Afterlife
Have you held the curve
of a place in hand? Still
as a sea urchin’s sun-decay,
skeleton then sand. Spurring
the silent primal sense that creates
the weight of a place – its ghosts.
Have you come to love the atoll ghost?
Have you learned its gin-green curve,
witnessed the coconut bite down to create
in time the freckled palm – never-still?
Traipsing in island brush, sand spurs
self-harvest on ankles deep in decay.
Have you thought much of your own decay?
Such disintegration! Then, the formation of your ghost.
Do you yearn to linger in the winds, or do you spurn
all cares for death and its delights, its curve
into the dark? Spilling sands one day still,
but in their spill islands diminish then re-create.
Drift along and in your mind create
a place with joy in the decay,
you’ll reach that coast and see the moon still
heaves itself from the deep to call each ghost
by name and let them thrill along its crater-curves.
You don’t believe in ghosts? Nor spurts
of death-light, nor bleached bone dances? Spurious
is poetry, the superstitions it creates.
You forget the taste of horizon curved
in hand. You forget the mute corals, who decay
long after light has left and leave staghorn ghosts
dancing bones through shallows still.
Have you gone to a place to be still?
Have you opened your hand to the spur
of crab claw, to the spindling ghost
in decommissioned lighthouse, to the creatures
living an instant in amorous decay?
Have you let the world open you and curve,
curve along your spine like water distilled?
Give in to the decadent, the spurious,
for even as I write, the hot sea creates new ghosts.
“Fledge” has been published in Humana Obscura, “Reunion” was just included in I Am a Furious Wish: Anthology of Lowcountry Poets Vol. 1, and “Calypso’s Five Decade Soak” is forthcoming in Surge: The Lowcountry Climate Magazine issue 2.
Hailey “Pell” Williams is an MFA candidate in Poetry and Arts Management at the College of Charleston, and an editor at Surge: The Lowcountry Climate Magazine.Hailey’s work is forthcoming or published in the Birmingham Poetry Review, and Humana Obscura, among others. Find more of her work at pellwrites.wordpress.com
Beth Tockey Williams recently achieved her Master Circle Status with the International Association of Pastel Societies. Her work has been featured in The Pastel Journal, Charleston Living, and Charleston Garden and Gun Jubilee, among others. Find more of her work at bethwilliamspastels.squarespace.com
The Ekphrastic Review
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