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O’NEILL AND THE SEA

I.
The greatest metaphor of them all
In the end stands only for the rise and fall
Of itself. The tides, boats and sailors,
Even the seagulls, symbolize the great substitution
Of one reality for another
Of gray skies for bad weather
Or trouble, which it is.
The sea rolls over itself
A compass in a gale that can never fail,
As timeless as a ship in the distance
That doesn’t move
Then is gone in a moment,
In the sweep of a gull’s wing overhead
As the sea rolls back into place.
A ring-billed gull stands still as a statue out on the jetty
As fishermen lash bait into the surf
And the spray seems to answer them
Thrown against the rocks.
The tide withdraws and all are there,
The sandpipers sweeping a vast apron of sand,
The couples and families and loners
watching them in the twilight.

II.
O’Neill was the last sea writer to summon
The waves to obey him as he told his tale,
Scanning horizons and charts,
Bound for Wales or Argentina,
Swedes, Wobblies, black sheep
From New England farms, young, old,
Confident, crazy, an occasional accused spy.
Whatever information the sea held
Was hidden in the pace of the waves,
The endless push and struggle and swelling
Of the water to overtake itself, become
More than it was or ever could reach
Before settling for the old tidal release and return
To the depths to gather strength.

— This poem appears in the September 8, 2014, issue of National Review.



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