the lonely sea and the sky
Poetry Breakfast ~ at home
Very soon after my Mum died in 2016, I spent three weeks, mostly alone, in a little cottage by the beach in Harlech, north Wales. The lonely sea and the sky was exactly what I needed, and I spent my time quietly reading, knitting – and, of course, walking for hours every day on that gloriously isolated beach.
Like many of us, I have been sea-deprived (Jude describes it as ‘saltwater-deficient’) for a much longer period than usual. Last week’s Written on the Shore theme helped me mind-travel to the many beaches I love, and now we are into full-on sea and sky immersion! I hope you enjoy it.
Next week, our theme is Summer Dreams: as always, please send in your poetry suggestions, and I’ll be happy to share them.
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
And here is John Masefield himself, reading Sea Fever – and settling once and for all (I hope) the question of does he go down to the sea, or merely down to it.
Due to popular demand, our featured poet this week is Kathleen Jamie. Kathleen was a visitor to the Wenlock Poetry Festival in years gone by, and is the highly acclaimed author of many poetry collections, including: Selected Poems, 2018; The Bonniest Companie, which won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year 2016 and The Overhaul which was shortlisted for the 2012 TS Eliot Prize and won the Costa Award for Poetry, all published by Picador.
Kathleen has also written works of non-fiction in which her poetic sensibilities are never far from the surface: Sightlines: A Conversation with the Natural World; Findings: Essays on the Natural and Unnatural World, and most recently, Surfacing, all published by Sort Of Books. (For a brilliant testimonial to Surfacing and Kathleen’s other books, a visit across to DoveGreyReader is definitely in order!)
In this luminous new essay collection, acclaimed author Kathleen Jamie visits archeological sites and mines her own memories – of her grandparents, of youthful travels – to explore what surfaces and what reconnects us to our past. As always she looks to the natural world for her markers and guides. Most movingly, she considers, as her father dies and her children leave home, the surfacing of an older, less tethered sense of herself.
Surfacing offers a profound sense of time passing and an antidote to all that is instant, ephemeral, unrooted.
A so simple poem, by a Scottish poet as well known for her essays in ‘Findings’ ‘Sightlines’ and ‘Surfacing’. I love the images of light, night and a blue boat moving slowly together across the water, the lantern guiding.
How late the daylight edges
toward the northern night
as though journeying
in a blue boat, gilded in mussel shell
with, slung from its mast, a lantern
like our old idea of the soul
from The Tree House (Picador, 2004; ©Kathleen Jamie), Kathleen kindly gave permission for us to inlcude this poem.
I’ve chosen this poem by Kathleen – ‘fleet clouds and salt kiss’ – perfect!
Well, friend, we’re here again —
sauntering the last half-mile to the land’s frayed end
to ﬁnd what’s laid on for us, strewn across the turf —
gull feathers, bleached shells,
a whole bull seal, bone-dry,
knackered from the rut
(we knock on his leathern head, but no one’s home).
Change, change — that’s what the terns scream
down at their seaward rocks;
ﬂeet clouds and salt kiss —
everything else is provisional,
us and all our works.
I guess that’s why we like it here:
listen — a brief lull,
a rock pipit’s seed-small notes.
“Fianuis” is from The Bonniest Company (2015) © Kathleen Jamie and published with Kathleen’s kind permission.
Alix has chosen this, but says she might easily also have chosen The Whale-watcher and The Glass-hulled Boat
The Lighthouse by Kathleen Jamie
Here is the lighthouse,
redundant these days.
From the keepers’
– the sea, of course
a metallic seam
closing the horizon.
– And gulls too,
uttering the same
as when you first imagined
hours spent hunched
against the wind-
abraded wall might yield some
species of understanding.
All those hours, gazing
out to the ocean.
Years ago now.
Thank you to Kathleen for permission to include this poem.
Basking Shark by Kathleen Jamie
chosen by Alix Nathan
When I came to the cliff-edge
and lay down, all beneath
was space, then green-
tinted sea, so clear
it revealed, level below level,
not void, but a living creature.
Behind me peat moor
careered inland. I gripped
sweet rock – but it was only
resting, berthed as though
drawn by the cliff’s
precisely that its ore-
heavy body and head –
the tail fin measuring back,
forth, like a haunted door –
could come to sense the absolute
limits of its realm.
While it hung, steady
as an anvil but for the fins’
corrective rippling – dull,
dark and buoyed like a heart
that goes on living
through a long grief
what could one do but watch?
The sea heaved; fulmars
slid by on static wings;
the shark – not ready yet
to re-enter the ocean
travel there, peaceable and dumb –
waited, and was watched;
till it all became
unbearable, whereupon the wind
in its mercy breathed again
and far below the surface
glittered, and broke up.
At the risk of being derailed from sea and sky, I couldn’t resist this link from Philip: it is Joanna Lumley reading Cargoes by John Masefield – a poem I’ve finally ‘got’ as a result of her reading it! It segues into a scrummy little snatch from the Likely Lads – hands up if you remember them?
The mention of the sky connects for me with The Windhover by Hopkins I have this poem in my mind at the moment anyway as I am teaching an online course on poems about ‘The Wild’ and we have been discussing this poem this week. I absolutely love the way that Hopkins gets so much joy, energy and music into his writing, and the way he celebrates the bird here. I always imagine him just walking through the world and saying ‘Wow! Wow! Wow!’ at what he sees.
To Christ our Lord
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimping wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down million
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.
Source: Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)
Photo: sunrise from Backhill, Berneray
Crossing by Liz Lefroy
Put on the north to forget, dress in silver
like a Baltic dawn amidst the archipelagos.
Brace yourself to the voyage, to the haul
of a Viking warrior unused to the idea
of going back, faithful to the long vessel
which doubles as burial rites.
It is enough, this approach to water.
It is enough to look out over
scatterings of land cleansed from heat,
shawl your body against the chill,
edge on into winter.
Photo © Judy King, January 2020, flying into the Uists
the storm has dragged itself offshore
under trees it rains still
I know a sailor whose mind foamed against itself
and he sat drowning for the next five years
the lighthouse throws its face and catches it
night slicks in over the water
I used to know a shortcut through the dunes
not even dog walkers had spoiled
the shore had dragged itself to sea
the light has the arc of a tethered bird in flight
I have sat in the dune and imagined drowning
in a submarine heavy death night slicks
over water it is still raining under trees
I know a shortcut to a sailor the mind foaming on the beach.
Thank you to Andrew McMillan for kind permission to use this poem
The Lofty Sky by Edward Thomas kind of turns things upside down, turns the sky into a river, if not the sea. I came to know it just a few weeks ago, mid-lockdown, when it spoke very strongly to me, reflecting a strong urge to get above things, and to have a view, to be able to see for miles and miles. It inspired my choice of an outing on my birthday: we went to Burrough Hill! Sad to say our second lockdown (Leicester) forbids even such small escapes.
Sky over Harlech
To-day I want the sky,
The tops of the high hills,
Above the last man’s house,
His hedges, and his cows,
Where, if I will, I look
Down even on sheep and rook,
And of all things that move
See buzzards only above:-
Past all trees, past furze
And thorn, where nought deters
The desire of the eye
For sky, nothing but sky.
I sicken of the woods
And all the multitudes
Of hedge-trees. They are no more
Than weeds upon this floor
Of the river of air
Leagues deep, leagues wide, where
I am like a fish that lives
In weeds and mud and gives
What’s above him no thought.
I might be a tench for aught
That I can do to-day
Down on the wealden clay.
Even the tench has days
When he floats up and plays
Among the lily leaves
And sees the sky, or grieves
Not if he nothing sees:
While I, I know that trees
Under that lofty sky
Are weeds, fields mud, and I
Would arise and go far
To where the lilies are.
who else will stand just here
on these grains of sand
exposed for a moment
at this lowest of low tides
were they ever before
warmed by the sun
who else turning over stones
will scrape words on these fine lines
where waves at slack water
who else will stand just here to shout
your name into the wind
who else will wade in my boots
so far out
Thank you to Pauline for allowing us to include this not-yet-published poem.
Attend to the gulls and forecasts heard in bed,
reassurance that we’re safe from winter seas
where wrecks roll under the sea lanes, tilting
in the oily wash of ferries
or fathoms down, where whales slip freely
through the Hebrides.
You must have been there in the flap and crack of canvas
that Malin stitched for you in beads of ice
and worked a slanting Dog Watch while the gales
whipped North Utsire white at nightfall
and learned co-ordinates for the sight
of black ceramic water shattering on Rockall.
I imagine you counting, between Fair Isle
and Forties, a flock of shipwrecks,
when you slept. Long after you’ve gone,
I think of the course of your keel
on its barred-silver passage to the mackerel north
or on the coal road from Lerwick to Shields.
Thank you to Jean for allowing us to include this poem.
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
This poem is in the public domain and was chosen by Ann Wishart and Philip Browning.
Philip enjoyed a trawl through four volumes of Poetry Please and More Poetry Please (thank you, Philip) to find some more gems for us!
The Old Ships by James Elroy Flecker – the link is to a Guardian article with the poem which some might find interesting
The Lake Isle of Innisfree by W B Yeats – no introduction needed.
Kathy Watson chose a poem by David Whyte, you can read the poem in full here, and here is a short extract:
“… you were a signature written in sand
taken by the ocean and scattered
to another wave form, your disappearance
only made more beautiful
by the everyday arrival of a tide …”
Kathy also sent this video of the choir she and Ann sing with – it does mention the sea, and there are lots of photos of Shrewsbury in flood earlier this year!
Longitude by Steve Harrison
John Harrison’s clockwork fingers
carving cogs from well-oiled teak
to lock and turn and tell the time
for navigators lost at sea.
Compass faithfully points at North,
but how far East or West?
Starry nights a satellite guide
Sun and wind all help the guess.
A clock without a pendulum
true to a second, if only
knowing exactly where you sailed –
He made sea and sky less lonely.
Thank you Steve for writing this poem for our theme this week – so atmospheric, and such a lovely thought that he made the sea and sky less lonely – wonderful.
Thanks, too, for choosing this poem by Angela Readman.
Our Names in Pebbles by Angela Readman
Our lives are salvage, on the glint of a storm
we fly out of the house like booted angels,
a clink of gates our splintered wings.
The barrels are always gone, old men roll
home, fires in whiskers, breath bobbing
for kisses their wives have yet to learn.
We hold driftwood like a flame to the notion
of winter, so slippery in our grip. Back, forth,
back, we cart in the dusk, our shifting not done,
we sign our names in stones on planks. Ours
is written in mussels, brittle as lasses in aprons
queuing for milk, stain petticoats under silt skirts.
Mother makes a row of shells and cops a glance
of my father lugging a ship’s desk for a widow
- seaweed legged, drawer full of crabs.
Tonight I’ll see her circle, ladling soup, so close
he may feel a kiss sail over his neck, she’ll lean in
clank a pocket and lay a single shell on his wrist.
Thank you to Angela Readman and Jane Commane for permission to include this poem.
Drifting – Ynys Enlli by Chris Kinsey
Perched at the north end
I listen to the tides swirl.
Out in the sound, a tug
of turquoise tears white threads.
Shrieking oystercatchers jab limpets
on black and orange lichened rocks.
I turn my back on the turmoil
of birds and tides, lie face down
in cream clover, smelling of
powder compacts, raided handbags.
Dusty bees drone me back
to the weave of tough stalks.
I’m close up to eyebright’s
white, yellow, purple flowers,
size of the stones clustered
in a 1950’s engagement ring.
from Cure for a Crooked Smile by published Ragged Raven Poetry
Thank you to Chris for giving permission for us to include her poem, and to Gill McEvoy for requesting it.
caught taut between
my kite and yours,
and Peckett Well memorial,
Rishworth comm’s tower
and the Ovenden windfarm,
and Emley mast.
We have the sky
pinned by these spikes:
a butterfly of cirrus
and cumulus, of nimbostratus
and the threat
© Char March
from her collection ‘The Cloud Appreciation Society’s Day Out’ published by Indigo Dreams, 2011
Thank you to Char, for permission to include this poem.
So many poems! And here are some more. You might like this piece of music to listen to as you read?
Hilary’s choices this week are Breakage by Mary Oliver and Tides by Jenny Joseph – a favourite of Hilary’s and rightly so! We all know Jenny’s marvellous Warning poem (excuse me while we take a short diversion!) – but there is more to her than that!
Joyce said she really likes this poem – Seventy Feet Down by Philip Larkin and as she really likes Kathleen Jamies’ poems she’s looking forward to this post.
So that’s it for another week. Thank you, as ever, to all the poets and publishers who have enabled us to share their poems, and to all our poetry readers who have made recommendations. This wouldn’t happen without you!
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