Home » Issues & Poems » Issue Eighteen » BY-THE-WIND SAILOR


John F. Deane

I was born on Achill Island, off the west coast of Ireland, a large island in the Atlantic. As a child I learned to swim and often visited a small beach on the island, Keem Bay. Several times, when I got there, I found the beach covered over with the small jellyfish-type of creature known as Velella velella, in English variously By-the-wind Sailor, Sea Raft, Purple Sail. They float on the surface of the ocean and have a membrane that lifts into the wind that carries them in myriads across the seas. They are amethyst in colour and the sight of them covering the beach is a wonderful one. As I grew I learned about the Holy Spirit in the Christian tradition, and discovered the notion of inspiration as I began to write poetry. This idea of allowing the Spirit to take over the poem, to accept the ‘breath’, the ‘given’, has always appealed to me. In Chicago, under the ‘gift’ of the Teilhard de Chardin Fellowship in Loyola University, Fall semester 2016, I worked on this poem. The height of the Willis Tower there, as it disappears into the clouds quite often, and as the wind offers to take one bodily on its wings, also appealed to me. Finally, on Seamus Heaney’s gravestone is written: ‘Walk on air against your better judgment’. This poem moves and lives under the giving of that great poet, and an effort to touch the sources of real inspiration in poetry and life.


Send forth your spirit and they shall be created,

and you will renew the face of the earth.


In the beginning, breath agitating like a breeze,

the stitched sheet rippled like a foal, and the home-built


‘Unsafe’ safe for the moment, shivering beyond the stones;

wind slight, the bog-lake standing at ease. We are children,


always, attentive to the breath. Braced

for the extraordinary.






In the enclosed garden there is the high proud mastery

of hollyhock and delphinium, of soft-pink rose and lupin


where bumble-bee and variegated Eden-coloured butterflies

speak ease and silence and the passion of earthen things.


Outside the walls there is the wilful human violence, darkness

of the common soul, of the quick and the departed.


Belief, with its creel of ritual and mystery, becomes

difficult. The walls are coloured with the figures of dread:


dragons and demons, the cockerel betrayal of the Christ,

barbarian terror abroad. Our breath is prayer, lifting our spirits


to the breeze. We sing our hymns to the candle-flame

and sink, all of us, refugees, into moth-silent night.






The mind, mornings, waits scraggy as the heron’s nest

high in the ruffled treetops;


the boy in me wants to be an old-timer

riding a palomino across high sierras, inhaling orange dust


with vultures circling on the wheels of air above,



wants to be the suave and grease-haired


still-young and disillusioned toreador sipping chilled

Marqués de Cáceres rosé wine on a Toledo terrace.





You I think of as a bird, of a white so pure

you skim to invisibility; you are the high-pitched buzz


of the hover-fly, bog cotton in sunlight and a gusting wind,

a wavering of white butterflies struggling towards flight;


you are the Portuguese man o’ war, the sea raft

wafting on the surface of the ocean, you are primordial


waters, as if the words might come ex nihilo, a wind

blowing across the deep, making a covenant with being.




Something of Yeshua/Jesus has left its caul

in my flesh, my skull is riven with a blood-feud darkness


like the painfilled  reek in an ancient beehive cell.

Child years were a haze of fragrances: frankincense, myrrh,


the perfumes of papa God’s bazaars;

the thurible, with its chains, its censer, its incense boat


was a charmed Aladdin’s lamp. I must be contented now

with homeliness from those deckled years – with peace


before high windows, wet sunlight coming through in shards

like hollyhock and delphinium, soft-pink rose, Chagall-blue lupin;


I find acceptance these days amongst benevolent spectres

who have stepped beside me; and am contented with the beloved


lately dead who drift away from my mourning into the saffron-bright,

woodbine-scented morning of their all-knowing.







Sometimes the words caught steady brightness

though more often they languished in an under-the-stairs


dust-dark. Braced for the extraordinary I held belief

in sunlight and sacrament, in white sheets strung


along blue skipping-rope, hoisted high in sea-shore winds;

I prayed for an outpouring, coram Deo, the keen presence


of the breath of life, the way the Spirit came whispering fire

to the churches, that Spirit, more gannet perhaps than dove,


that white-flash down-dive welcome and daunting. Years

I have been cassocked in darkness, surpliced in light –


held safe in spite of repeated under-the-skin infidelities –

my world like the glass snow-globe that – when you turned it


upside-down – sent a tiny full-rigged ship in gentle motion

across a wavering sea. I think, now, of that innocence, moments


like a small child’s small flowered wellingtons splashing

on the sky that mirrors itself in a snow-melt pool.




I walked, one clarifying day, the pebbled and billion-shelled

shore of the lake where you knelt, Yeshua, at dawn, preparing fish,


rewriting the landscape, redressing our suppositions

and all our certainties. You, fox on the margins, Jesus, alert


and espied. I inhaled the moon over Hermon that was duck-down white

and I drank cold beer on the shore of Kinnaret


while Israeli jets jarred the sky in their war-games,

above you – gentle and all-suffering – still – the Christ.




In the plum-blue out-there darkness

and high above the intently-watching towers –

in slow ballet: the galaxies, driven and intent like those

myriads of by-the-wind sailors on the seas and can you sense


the fissures and glaciations down the faces of the planets

that are, up there, in the dance, serene. I am at home


with heather-tuft and turf-bank, with curlew-call

and the constant love-nothings murmured to the coast


by soft-capped waves. There is an old fragility

in the lace-like edges of all things, and how the solitary haw


(with its invisible, roseate angels, its prickly littlepeople)

is shot through with ivy. Tonight the constellations


will appear in another quarter of the sky, my bones

will singe with sentience of seasoning, of now, of geologic time.


I would share, down here, in the gentle communion of saints,

as the quizzical light the moon has focused on the park


will be gone by morning, the trail the fox has left through the grasses

will vanish soon, earth shriven again by its golden ochre light.




I watch out now over Lake Michigan; in me there is

a willingness to let go, a readiness to open to the pulse


that will touch on silence beyond silence, where word

has taken root, to reach a faith beyond faith where Word –


unheard – responds. And there was a day above Keem Bay;

can you paint a beach in cobalt blue? For there they were,


innumerable, by-the-wind-sailors, flung ashore by the high tide;

it was an image of sky, cerulean blue and shivering, a whole


testament of ages, of life and blessed passivity, words

of the world’s dramas, its epics and illustrated books


where we, at our very best, discover ourselves, too,

mendicants, loving the absence that will come to save us.





On the hundred and somethingth floor of the Willis Tower

it is hard to breathe; you may step out here onto the skydeck,


you are straw-in-the-wind a while, open to it, and scared;

you are now beyond your capacity to be and only Spirit


keeps you exposed, open to the demands of word and Word

till your being brims and overflows. You are urged back


to earth, at the sea’s edge, and the spirit sighs within you;

here the black rocks are charred with weed, sheen with sea-water –


a seal, lifting its great attentive eyes, comes curious towards you,

its sleek eel-sinewy body graced under the surface, then


turns and dives back into its element, leaving you solitary again.

And you know it, this-world wonder and danger, reach, withdrawal;


you are by-the-wind Sailor: deep blue, amethyst and cobalt,

small spirit-sail that lifts and carries you and you do not know


from where it comes nor in what station it will abandon you;

there will be disturbance at sea, touching on islands,


and millions of them – vellela vellela – moved by the breath,

open to it, will stir with a shiver of anticipation, breeze


soundfull, and in unison, like words that are gathering

in a chant of praise, or in a psalm, an Eloi Eloi. . . and you


are driven by gusts, gasped or long-haul, towards shore

till at last, shockingly, the whole beach is written over blue.


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