Tuesday, March 14, 2017

undercliff, rock and shore

On seaweed:

cockle shell   black-limbed   slacks off
gelatinous              red ghosts    gouted
by the tide      are sealed      the salt air

mending     [...]

                       there must be a key
in the writing of barnacles   where fibonacci
makes sense of  the spread of  bladderwrack

at the height of spring tide   blackened
even in meagre sun   wrack taken as a word
in a wider universe   not portent

but principle of  addition   or in a briny manual
discovered   A Dreadful Alarm upon the Clouds
of  Heaven, Mix'd with Love    shared

with crows   whipgrass    the barking of gulls
the busying sands and fingering waters
readying to come again   to keep oraginous order

(from Wrack, poem 1)

On seashells:


the shell in your palm   a child's milk tooth

abandoning infancy to the bulls and bears
a nocturnal calculus   not yet established
in the fold of what is inanimate and lasting

in us   but found in a line on the sand
fetched up by the night tide   I shall treasure it

always   tracking a parallel economy
shells etched with lines   frequencies lit
like the bloom of flesh   ringed and grained  [...]

(from Wrack, poem 4)


Coming to this book from Occasionals (2011) , I might have anticipated this brilliance of nature writing and this flow of new discoveries connecting nature, economy and identity. 

But Wrack (2007) is not just about wandering along the shoreline. It's also a salty smuggling, merchandising and wrecking book based on an actual Devon wreck of 1772 and a single woman passenger.

Which makes it a marvellous companion to the other book I'm in the middle of right now, J. Meade Falkner's 1898 adventure yarn Moonfleet, set in Dorset in 1757-ish.  (Both books being, besides the related subject-matter, incredibly creative in the language department...)

And as Carol's book co-opts a touch of the boy's-book excitement of the seafaring yarn in order to pursue a meditation about women's experience in the western urban capitalist world of today, well there's a bit of a parallel there with another poem I've spent a lot of time with in the past year, Lisa Samuels' Tomorrowland (2009)...


Cormorant (Phalcrocorax carbo)

[Image source: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/bird-and-wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/c/cormorant/]

When I was a landlocked child in Kent, I thought of the cormorant as a rather exotic creature confined to seafaring yarns, or perhaps seen just once, on that caravan holiday to cream-tea country.

In those days Phalocrocorax carbo bred on western coasts in the spring. Outside of the breeding season they sometimes ventured inland, for example they could be seen in winter in parts of the west midlands and northern Ireland. But not elsewhere.

Things have changed. Fifty years later, the whole of the British Isles (apart from high Scottish mountains) play host to the winter cormorants.  For example here in Swindon, a long way from any coast. Whether it's because our inland waterways are so much cleaner and they once more "teem with fish" (Bede's description of England) ; or because we've now ruined the sea-fishing ; or because inland winters are now as mild as coastal ones used to be ; I don't know - but I suspect it's the first reason, given the similarly dramatic increase in herons and egrets over the same period.  Cormorants being superb fishers, this has rattled the angling community, who want the freshwater fish stocks all to themselves.

The cormorants fly around in small flocks of half-a-dozen birds, and they spend a lot of time perching companionably but clumsily in the bare crowns of trees above the water -- I mistook them for crows or rooks until I looked more closely. (Webbed feet are not really much good for perching.)

Last Sunday I watched a cormorant fishing on a calm stretch of the River Avon in Bath. (I've also noticed them at Midford, south of Bath.) Its body sat very low in the water, reminding me of the great northern divers that I used to watch in Sweden. And now the cormorant seemed graceful, not clumsy. The long snaky head and bill were extremely impressive. So were the long dives. I held my own breath, wondering that it could stay down so long. Then I'd find it again, twenty yards away.



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