The Oracle of the Drowned

Douglas Oliver

Memory in sea-green with sea-weed grain
of glass as the rearing wave rains briefly
before a lot of bother
on the beach of childhood
and men with a burden file across sand.
Those far-out surfaces are lipped
with transparent phrases coming to mind:
that the real dying happened in middle heights
between the lips and the sea floor.
Remember the swim trunks lost in waters
and the first man in our lives who drowned,
this, now, his cortege from the tide-edge,
the sacred hanging-down of head and arms,
seeing that person’s white groin
cooked chicken bared near the hook of the ribs
and a shore-line of horrified children
arrested in their digging to gaze
at seas of such corruption as to change him.
His shirt left behind too long on the promenade rail,
always there in our lives, its caked cotton
fluffy-white in its inner wrappings.
The cloth wandered open at nights as we wondered
what a drowning body could say
when its chest became translucent green,
we courted in our minds such corrupt purity,
never escaping but sinking into not
the unthinkable gift of the self to death,
not the sea flash flood in the throat,
but into the oracle of the drowned;
because the oracle of the dying comes to a halt
but the oracle of the dead continues and has humour in it.
We ask the dying, ‘How do you go about drowning?’
and the answer comes first ‘I cannot – ’
then swims in ambivalent vowels
and voiceless consonants in the washing tide
voiced consonants in the last buzz of the eardrum:
‘Aah, I am funtoosh, zooid, walway,
wallowing, rows and rows of waves,
a goooood one, my soooul a sea-mew’ –
and we learn nothing but the knowledge of pain,
and the hope of a future from it.
But the gone-dead are beamish and talk to us
from out of memory’s hollows and gulphs:
‘You, boy, in your Bournemouth bed, be with me now
and I will come to you many years later
still drowned in a medium of green liquid
the water whispering through its lips
as the dark whispers to you in caves or before sleep.
And I was a man and had babies
as you, a baby, will have a man and call him “Father”
and as the drowned will have the drowned.’