The Alligators of Nantucket
I rose quickly, a diver,
From the bedrock of sleep to the surface of waking
Through layers of time and dream,
Through a stratum of shells cracked long ago by fishermen’s hulls,
Tumbled by waves, buried in sand.
And through a layer of loam,
Of leaves blown down years ago,
Crumbled under toes of running children,
Mown by a father grown now too old to mow,
And covered under.
Through all this I rose from deep sleep
To a quivering surface,
Knowing I had risen through the years
From a repose to which I would soon enough return for good.
I found myself awake with others, indecisive,
And broke to find a path atop the shells and loam
Through rugged hunkered Nantucket houses,
Vacant, dreaming houses, brown and gray,
Like the one that held my wife and I
At the launch of our shipwrecked marriage.
And I ran until the settlement thinned
To where the land shone brighter, wetter,
In strong colors not bleached by sun and salty wind.
And around a turn a wet field of freckled orange lilies
Shrouded in clouds of their own sunblown moted golden dust,
Trembled wild and tall,
And I wheeled on my bare heel to retrieve my camera
And steal this beauty,
Running back the way I’d come
Through pools fed from some unseen source,
In which alligators gleamed,
Unfazed by passing shadows,
My heels plunging in where safe to take another flying leap
Over the cool glass of the water.
I thought: How quiet is the bedrock of sleep;
How bright and flashing the wet and fertile plain,
The snapping, hazy, lurking, lazy, buzzing world
Where so much beauty strains to show itself to those
Who wake to stare it in the face.
—Munton Semmes, 13th Earl of Weston, was my mother's great-grandfather. I found this poem, handwritten and dated 24 July 1913, in a box of letters and memorabilia that my grandmother had kept. "Munty" (b. 1845, Harrow, Cambridge, etc.) was military attaché at the British embassy in Ottawa when he met Amber Greacen, heiress to a whale-oil fortune, in 1869. They lived unhappily in Nantucket and New York before divorcing in 1877 over a woman whom Semmes loved until the end of his life, though she would never marry him. Shortly after the divorce, his uncle died and he assumed his title. Munty reluctantly moved into the ancestral home, while continuing to entreat the woman he loved to marry him. In 1893, under terrible financial pressure, he sold Wolf Hall to his ex-wife's family and moved into his club in London. In later years he enjoyed the friendship of younger writers Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, TS Eliot, Vita Sackville-West, and Virginia Woolf, as well as many of his own generation.