Folly Beach

by Christine Swint

Wet sand near breakers reflects clouds, pale sky.
I should be in heaven, but I’m not.
I want someone to crack my heart open,
make it as wide as the beach,
beating in rhythm with the waves.
I think of the Buddhist monk called One Finger
Gutei Isshi, who answered questions about
the Dharma by raising one finger, a silent signal
I imagine like the icons of St. John
the Baptist gesturing toward God.

Gutei Isshi once cut off a student’s finger
to teach the boy a lesson. As the boy ran,
clutching his fallen finger, One Finger
called to him. When the boy turned his head,
One Finger pointed toward the sky.
They say he stopped the boy’s mind.

If Gutei Isshi strolled beside me,
his saffron robes trailing in the surf,
he’d reach his pointer finger
under my sternum, strum the aorta,
pluck the ventricle, and then,
in a curl of a digit, he’d dig out my heart
and fling it into the bottle-green waves.

What I want in place of a heart: a chest cavity
as wide as the space between stars.

Pelicans skim the water for fish, gulls call,
a toddler runs down shore from her mother,
jellyfish spill on the wet sand, breezes
carry the scent of sea muck. In the heaven
I desire, my skin dissolves in the salt air
and the sun steams my skeleton to a mist.

First published in Flycatcher Journal

What the writer says about the poem: A few years ago, when I was recovering from a turbulent bout of depression and anxiety, I took a trip to Folly Beach in South Carolina with my sister and her daughter, a toddler at the time. The place was beautiful, but I was feeling miserable inside. I thought of a quote I had read by Emerson, something to the effect that the beauty of nature is a reflection of the beauty in one’s mind, and I realized I just couldn’t see the beauty because of the pain I was experiencing. I needed the intercession of this radical Buddhist monk, Gutei Ishi, to slice my heart out and stop my mind. Gutei Ishi comes from a line of mystics and religious figures sometimes referred to as holy fools, people who use extreme measures to shock a person into enlightenment. By invoking the name of this holy fool, I feel the weightlessness of bliss by the last line of the poem. That’s the joy of poetry–I start by imagining a monk snatching my heart out and tossing it into the waves, but I end up imagining myself into a place of expansion and wellbeing. To create something, we have to imagine it first. 

About Christine Swint.


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