‘Sea that can only move forward’

In the Guardian Review today there’s a new short story by Colm Tóibín,  The Empty Family, the title story from a forthcoming collection.  Looking through a telescope at the sea, the story’s narrator is transfixed by the sight of the waves miles out:

Their dutiful and frenetic solitude, their dull indifference to their fate, made me want to cry out, made me want to ask him if he could leave me alone for some time to take this in. I could hear him breathing behind me. It came to me then that the sea is not a pattern: it is a struggle. Nothing matters against the fact of this. The waves were like people battling out there, full of consciousness and will and destiny and an abiding sense of their own beauty.

I knew as I held my breath and watched that it would be wrong to stay too long. I asked him if he would mind if I looked for one more minute. He smiled as though this was what he had wanted. Unlike you, who have never cared about things, your brother is a man who likes his own property. I turned and moved fast, focusing swiftly on a wave I had selected for no reason. There was whiteness and greyness in it and a sort of blue and green. It was a line. It did not toss, nor did it stay still. It was all movement, all spillage, but it was pure containment as well, utterly focused just as I was watching it. It had an elemental hold; it was something coming towards us as though to save us but it did nothing. Instead, it withdrew in a shrugging irony, as if to suggest that this is what the world is, and our time in it, all lifted possibility, all complexity and rushing fervour, to end in nothing on a small strand, and go back out to rejoin the empty family from whom we had set out alone with such a burst of brave, unknowing energy.

In the story, the narrator recalls an earlier time in Australia, reading the poems of  Louise Gluck – perhaps this one:

Odysseus’ Decision

The great man turns his back on the island.
Now he will not die in paradise
nor hear again
the lutes of paradise among the olive trees,
by the clear pools under the cypresses. Time

begins now, in which he hears again
that pulse which is the narrative
sea, ar dawn when its pull is strongest.
What has brought us here
will lead us away; our ship
sways in the tined harbour water.

Now the spell is ended.
Give him back his life,
sea that can only move forward.

Now home was this ’empty house back from the cliff at Ballyconnigar, a house half full of objects in their packages, small paintings and drawings … including the Mary Lohan painting I bought in Dublin and other pieces I bought years ago waiting for hooks and string’.

Mary Lohan was born in Dublin in 1954 and studied painting at the National College of Art and Design. She:

works with incredibly thick impasto that oozes over the edges of her paintings, encrusting itself in layer upon layer of oil that clings to the sides of the canvas and extends the picture plane to hover in mid-space in front of the gallery wall. The rough, tactile use of paint is echoed in her fascination with the barren coastlines Donegal, Mayo and Wexford, and the physicality of her painting allows the viewer to experience the rolling and crashing of the waves against the shore.
Taylor Galleries


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