Empress of Ireland


M Press of Ire

Background and Dedication

    The poems which have come together to form the M Press of Ire were begun in Ste. Luce-sur-mer, Quebec, in May 2002.

    It was off shore from Ste. Luce, in the early hours of the morning of the 29th of May, 1914, that the Empress of Ireland collided with a Norwegian collier whose bows had been strengthened for ice-breaking. There were approximately 15 minutes between the moment of impact (1:55 am) and the moment the ship caught on fire and sank (2:10 am). Although the disaster has received little international attention, more passengers were lost in this disaster (840) then in the loss of the Titanic (832) or of the Lusitania (791).

    I read these poems, for the first time, at the University of St. Thomas at Houston, Texas. The Virginia Tech shootings took place on Monday, 16 April, 2007, and I read these poems on Wednesday, 18, April, 2007, while memorial services were taking place on university campuses all over North America. I dedicated that reading to the victims and survivors of the shootings. I now re-dedicate these words to all those who have been touched by sudden loss, shock, and / or grief, and especially to those who have suffered loss under extraordinary circumstances.


    I first heard those voices in the cries of the sea birds on the beach at Ste. Luce.

    Borne on the wind, over the sigh of the waves, they seemed high-pitched, like the voices of children, or of men and women in distress. These were lost voices, the cries of people alone and frightened by the dark. I heard them calling to  me.

    That night, there were knocks at my cabin door and finger nails scratched at my window. Tiny sounds, almost beyond the range of human hearing: the snuffling of puppies when they turn over in their sleep and tug at each other, whimpering in their dreams.

    "Who’s there?"

    I started from my sleep. But there was only the wind and the waves as the tide’s footsteps climbed a moonbeam path to ascend the beach. When I walked on the sand next day, at low tide, there was a whispering behind my back. Little voices crying to be set free.

    "Who’s there?"

    A lone gull flew past my head and battered itself against the wind’s cage  with outraged sturdy wings.  That night, the mist descended. The church stepped in and out of its darkness and shadows gathered, persistent, at my door.

    I walked out into the night and I saw a lone heron mobbed by gulls. It was as if an adult, surrounded by clamouring children, was standing guard over the beach. Then I saw the shadows of little children searching for their parents, the shapes of mothers and fathers looking for their off-spring, lost in the tide mark, among the seaweed and the grains of sand.

    Beyond them, on the headland, the church stood tall above the shadows. I saw family survivors, their lips moving in supplication, kneeling before the granite cross which stands above the sea. As I approached, they turned to me, opened their mouths, mouthed silent words,  then disappeared. 

    When I went back to bed, faces and voices visited me in my dreams. When I got up next morning, they came to me in the speech of birds hidden in the foliage, in the words dropped by the osprey’s wing, in the click of the crab’s claw as he dug himself deeper into the sand.

    "Release us! Speak for us! Set us free!"

    The words of the Empress of Ireland are not my words. They could never be my words. Foundered words, they are, rescued from the beach, and dragged from the high tide mark filled with its sea weed, carapace, charred wood, old rusted iron, and bright bone of long dead creatures polished by the relentless action of wind, sea, and sand.

Dark Night of the Empress

Her cooled lights drowning now, fires subsiding, dying under rising waters.

Grit and river-bottom clog the dream: eyes and mouths wide open, faces blurred.

Seaweed: mermaid’s hair drifting slowly before the eyes;

    the cold tide sucking in at ankle and heel, pulling them down.


Celluloid fictions, black and white films, their mouths stretched in a silent scream.

What became of the photographers, of the men and women who stood their ground

    clicking their cameras in unison as the ship went down?

News! The air breaks apart: delirious dots and devious dashes.

The lighthouse light goes round and round.

It points a finger of silence at the collier looming silent through the mist.

What price the black pearl in the oyster?

What price the nightmare, cleanly wrapped in transparent plastic,

    desperate fingers tearing the see-through fabric from the face?

Salt water dashed on mouth and lips, this dream:

    sharp bows, wet rocks, and a tugging tide.

Toys and boys and dolls and girls

    and men and women, their bodies disgorged untidily,

    their useless limbs flopping at the sea’s foamed edge.

Last night, mist shredded itself on the sea-cradled headland.

This morning, the spring tide is a gentle hand

    erasing life’s autographs from the witnessing sand.

Silence after the storm:

a pocket full of posies

    –  gathered into their dreamless sleep –

    they have all fallen down ....

A Survivor Lights a Candle

During the Old Latin Mass for the Dead

Before the Main Altar at the Sanctuaire Sainte-Anne


I am afraid of fire:

    in principio erat verbum / in the beginning was the word.

I am afraid of the loud voice of the match scratching its sudden flare,

    narrowing my pupils, enlarging the whites of my eyes.

    et lux in tenebris lucet /and light shines in darkness.

Booming and blooming, igniting the soul’s dark night.

    Voice of fire:    

    et Deus erat verbum / and the Word was God.

Flourishing to nourishment, flames whispering on the flood:

    omnia per ipsum facta sunt / all things were made by Him.

Wool and water, this sodden safety blanket; and what of the cold plush

    of the pliant teddy bear, the staring eyes of the doll:

    et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt /

    and the darkness comprehended it not.

The lashes of their eyes bound together with salt water,

    they were doused in a silken mist:

    hic venit in testimonium / this served as a witness.

Still the patterns pierce my sleep, hauling me from my opaque dreams,

    holding my wrists in this sailor’s double clasp:

    non erat ille lux / he was not the light.

Oh! Curse these dumb waters rising!

“Not a hair on your head shall be harmed!” he said,

    hauling my sister up by her hair

    only to find her staring eyes

    belonging to the already dead:

    et mundus eam non cognovit /

    and the world knew her not.

Night waters rising.

The moon raising its pale thin lantern glow:

    et vidimus gloriam ejus / and we saw His glory

    shining forth upon the waters’ mirrored face.

Graveyard on the Point:

A Survivor Remembers his Catechism

Ste. Luce-sur-mer

The survivor at the cross roads, wreathed in his personal storm:

    ... et discerne causam meam / ... and distinguish my cause

    de gente non sancta... / from the unholy nation.

Bells on buoys peal out sea swell warnings: rising waves.

Tonight there is a grief all across the grève.

    Sa griffe / his claw, ma griffe / my claw

    homophonic puns scratching at reality’s surface,

    hiding inner meanings,

    leaving the depths unscarred.

Did he really paint the reality of the shipwreck, this Magritte?

    Cette pipe, qui n’est pas une pipe! / This pipe which isn’t a pipe!

    Mi grito que no es un grito! My cry which isn’t a cry!

    Cette vie qui n’est plus une vie! This life which is no longer a life!

This littoral bay which isn’t a literal bay.

ab homine iniquo et doloso erue me /

from the unjust and deceitful man deliver me.

Over bird frosted rocks, a ring billed gull cries out whose name

    on its early journey to greet pale stars?

On the beach at the cross’s foot, a grey robed pilgrim

    stands in dusk’s failing light.

et introibo ad altare Dei: ad Deum, qui laetificat juventutem meam /

and I will go unto the altar of God: to God, who giveth joy to my youth.

Mouettes, göelands muets:

    sea gulls, silent sea gulls:

    white arrows shot over sea wet sand.

He stands solemn before this graven stone waiting to be blessed:

    sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper /

    as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be ...

The eider duck sigh for their siblings,

    tossed from the crèche and lost

    in the long low swirl of the sea.

A Survivor Contemplates the Crucifix on the Point

Ste. Luce-sur-mer

Christ of the Rocks

    hanging from the crucifix with open eyes.

Do they see, out at sea, where gray waves cover

    the graveyard of the Empress, at rest,

    her passengers caressed beneath shallow waters.

They have gone on before me, those friends I numbered,

    their piercing eyes lie covered now.

Splayed toes: last night’s  footprints slowly filling,

    wind blown dust and sand.

Dry crunch of skull and skeleton crushed underfoot;

    sea boots ascend the beach’s gentle slope.

Unknown, these lands around me:

   emitte lucem tuam / send forth Thy light!

Unexplored, these mountains that surround me:

    ipsa me deduxerunt / such things have led me on.

Unsolved , these mysteries that confound me:

    in montem sanctum tuum / unto Thy holy hill ...

    ... in nomine Patris / ... in the name of the Father.

I wander from grave to grave, reading the headstones:

    quare me repulisti? / why hast Thou cast me off?

Coarse grass, woven bindweed as columbines combine.

Incessant mourning of glove grey morning doves,

    drawing tears from dawn’s face:

    quare tristis incedo? / why do I go sorrowful?

Verdant stems, unsophisticated flowers,

    weeds dark between stark granite stones.

Names! Whose names?

My long lost brothers’ names,

    not yet carved in stone, not yet in thy tabernacle:

    non in tabernacula tua / not in Thy tabernacle.

And the churchyard, as steady as a headland in a storm.

Here, at least, the terrestrial centre is stable:

    quare tristis es, anima mea? / why art thou sad, oh my soul?

And the ark on the waters moving from side to side,

    lulled by the sea waves, up and down.


On the altar, a gilded chalice,

far from the far flung malice of the sea:

    quare conturbas me? /  why dost thou disquiet me? 


The Survivor Contemplates Night Fall

Sanctuaire Sainte-Anne



There is no sanctuary between a rock and a hard place;

    there are no comforting arms between this hardness of heart

    and the sea rocked chamber where they lie.

Wet weeds bind their feet; their hands are helpless now;

    the knot will not of itself willingly untie.

Where now is the sweat from their brow?

What value now the fruit of their labour?

Where are the rosy cheeked apples of my eye?

There is only the lowly hiss of the serpent sea,

    the serpentine sea-kiss that sets us all free.

Grey seals, last night, were concrete shadows

    stealing up the beach.

If they turned their backs on the sea,

    would they turn into one lost child?

The sulky cry of their silken grief ties a knot

    in the hollow tube of my throat.

Some Survivors Come Ashore

Galérie Marcel Gagnon

Ste. Flavie

Theirs was an ordeal of fire:

fire on the flood, fire in the air,

fire in the water, fire under the water

where the ship’s boilers explode.

Looming above the land, night’s

wheelbarrow trundles across the sky

with a womb full of star-struck dead.

What saved the survivors,
shot them out from their ship,

and marooned their stony faces

beneath this grey, concrete sky?

Fresh from the sea, human jetsam

presses its heads into its hands.

They tread watery beds of cockles

and muscles: alive, alive eaux.

Their sodden fingers tear at the land:

knots in the pine planks are rough;

driven nails are rusty and sharp;

dry wood strips water-softened skin.

Time and the tide lie in ambush

waiting in this no man’s land

where sand meets sea and the sea

is on fire while the veiled moon

hides her face and bides her time.

Morning in the Havre du Bic


Daylight steps, dripping, from the sea’s rising light;

    morning; fresh waves breaking again and again;

    rocky inlets filling with shorebirds.

Migrant geese eyeing a distant horizon; white shirts

     flapping on a line, these oies blanches flying.

They are lit from below by the running of this low spring sun:

    tell me, who tells us when to stand and when to run?

Though the tide rises now, its ebb will soon drain us away.

It will strip us down to our elements:

    pure clay; the skull an earthenware bowl of sea-polished bone,

    lonely in the sand’s slow honing.

Mud flattens itself on slipway and sloping shore.

    These hollowed bodies stripped of all flesh

    break surreptitiously down.

Sea weed, wet sand: living things drying out, dying;

    an unforgiving father, this rising sun

    meaningless, merciless,

we stare into his eye with cat-slit eyes.

A lone bird walks on stilts across this desert of mud.

Semaphore of silver, a live fish flapping;

the predatory heron feasts on shadows;

    bread cast on waters, this miracle of fish.

Those who have gone before us cast no shadows.

Sharp stones beneath their feet,

    cold waves lapping at their hands.       

A Witness Walks on the Beach behind the Auberge

Ste. Luce-sur-mer

So douce, so soft, this dulse, this dunce’s cap of hair, binding my brain.

Beneath midnight’s dark, I covet each sparkling grain of sand,

    thrown upwards from the earth, blinding me as I look

    upwards to my horoscope cast longingly in golden stars.


Night’s darkest hour, now, when nothing remains:

    no thing, no - res, no ser, only le néant,

    with its giant hands leaves no re - [main] - s.

How softly the dew descends: night’s cobalt dressing gown,

    winding fitful down a stair of stars.

Fugitive light hiding bright day deep in deepening clouds.

Innocents Tripping on the Beach

Ste. Luce-sur-Mer

This beach is an ossuary,

    a golden board bordered with bone dust,

        paved with the chalk of skeleton and skull.

How clean now that earthen vessel in which each being sailed,

    purged, ground down by last night’s flames,

    abandoned the calcined bones to what new found desires?

Someone has plucked out their tongues,

    has strung unsaid words on unseen wires,

    notes on harp strings to hamstring the unwary.

All around us, dry, dead wood: sea washed trees gathered

    root and branch for these ritual burnings.

The cormorants spread oily wings;

    they dry themselves on the wind’s salt fence

    as the hot sun winds his crazy clockwork across a lazy sky.

Sightless, these ears that cannot see;

    deaf, these eyes that cannot hear.

What bars and barriers will be revealed

    when our own flesh peels away?

A black herald perches on a nearby rock and shrieks glad tidings.

Dressed in his feathered finery he croaks his list:

    but he doesn’t call my number

        nor does he name me by my name. 

Sermon for the Empress of Ireland

delivered in the main church at Rimouski

“Sometimes, in the evening, a golden angel gilds the waters

     and walks towards us over the waves.

I have seen him consecrate rock puddles, converting them

    to instant glory with a touch of his wings.

Sometimes, a silver angel walks by his side.

    Water turns to fish scale brightness, shimmering

and shivering, shining armour burnished by the light of his eyes.

Last week, when the Empress sank, the sea turned red, and yellow.

    The silver angel strained fresh blood from the sunset

and scattered it with water from an argent chalice.

He turned his back, held his hands high,

    and purified the air until silver light spun a halo round their suffering.

Rejoice in those who were lost to fulfill their destiny.

    A new light shines through them, and their spirits

    walk towards us out of the sea.

Glorify Him: He will take their crumpled bodies and heal them:

    so many disarticulated dolls brought broken to His hospital.

Bruises will disappear.

Crushed spirits will be made whole.

Broken bones will knit back together.

Spirits will be bound by the thinnest of puppet strings,

    thin shafts of sunlight.

Last night, a rainbow, a feu d’artifices rose up from the water.

Diamond pebbles skipped their coins the across the waves

    ringing them with songs of exultation.

Last night, blue and green dance steps,

    waltzed high and low on the northern horizon. 

Pools of standing water recalled spring’s freshness,

    the resplendence of new flowers, sweet

        mysteries of light.

Silver and gold, the angels walk their pathway.

    Pied pipers, they lead our children away by the hands.

We know, with the certainty of revelation,

    that when we in turn arrive, we will find them there, waiting.

Eat: this bread will nourish.

    Drink: this wine will spread across sunset’s waters

        and bring eternal peace.

Many mouths shall come here to feed.

    None will go empty.

Through these deaths, millions will be brought to life.

People who never knew them will carry them

    deep within their souls.

Have no fear: has He not said He will never leave you nor forsake you?”

A Survivor Finds Himself Far from the Empress of Ireland

For many days I have wandered across mud flats and sand.

The turning tide was an alarm clock waking me to bodily needs.

Sustenance: food and water, warmth and sun.

Who broke this stick of light across the back of night

    and brought me to daylight?

I climbed on dry land and the earth

    was a tablecloth spread beneath me.

Wild herbs and fresh rain fulfilled me.

I determined to find new meanings in life.

Alone on this barren headland, I never lost hope,

    even when I saw the bodies of my wife and child.

Thicker than water, this blood that spills from my hands.

Thicker than cocoa, thicker even than this chocolate mud.

Who walks towards me over the waves?

Who treads this liquid firmament and brings me peace?

On the Beach

Ste. Luce

A bird’s sharp arrow of flight

    points the way to time and tide.

Oh water and blood!

Eau red rocks reborn

again and again in this crimson sunrise.

Daylight: variegated striations,

    strata striated across the sky.

Each bird:

    a letter of the celestial alphabet;

    each morse code dot  and dash:

        a meaningless gesture

            tied to the blue kite of my life.

Where now the merganser?

Where now the eider ducks,

    chugging carefree in their crêches

        across the dark tide of the night?

Where now  is the sun’s bright match

    that will kindle earth’s holy book

        with the celestial flame of love?

Blue is the world:

    blue the blueness in which sea and sky unite.

The earth stands drably dressed in its shabby robe:

    mist on the headland,

        brief dance of light enhancing the clouds.

My footsteps at the tide’s edge

    being washed, washed,

            everything washing away .....