A figurehead, by Angela Leighton
Angela Leighton is an interesting poet, one whose work speaks to me. I hope soon to write about one of her collections, Sea Level, but in the meantime (and while I slowly work through Swann’s Way) I thought I’d share a poem that’s not in that collection but which captures why I like her work so much.
The story behind the poem is at this webpage here. Essentially, Hull City Council commissioned four poems to commemorate the the unveiling of a statue – one of a pair with the other in Iceland.
I don’t know Hull as a city, but I think it’s council did well with the statues and the poems. Both were signs of an optism of future links with Iceland, and I fear that optimism may have been a victim of Iceland’s economic misfortune and the UK’s part in making it worse. Still, the spirit was right and the statues and poems should both outlive our present troubles.
Here’s the poem, I’ll speak a little about it afterwards:
Hull, Immingham, Grimbsy, Spurn—
in the set sun’s spilt cordial
P&O’s big ghost goes out
night after night, like the dead from home.
Here’s a leaning of the spirit, drawn
out from upright, off from true,
a header into the wind, full-tilt,
the bent of going, at a stroke, stopped still.
Exchange and pact, sagas of return,
a sea-sickening in the ear’s dark hold—
yet out, out, sea-farer, wanderer,
Njal, Unn, old comers and goers,
like birds that trade their lands each year:
whooper, diver, plover, eider,
sandpiper, snow-goose, tystie1, tern—
that urging back, that longing to be gone.
Is it this compass needle of the north
that sets the heart at ice and snow,
that draws towards its zero point,
and rocks our stand, unfathoms our roots?
Like I in italics, this bowsprit figure,
clean as a sloping drift of snow,
looks out and shows how close we are,
how far, how cold, the last sea goes.
I don’t intend to talk about the poem too much. Responses to poetry are inevitably personal, and I have no great qualifications in the subject anyway. For me though, it brings out a sense of connections through time. The incantation of place names at the beginning, the reference to a modern cruise ship, these are combined with a sense of the passage of the otherworldly – a ghost going out like the dead from home.
Coupled with those contemporary references, we have names like Njal of The Saga of Burnt Njal (and if you haven’t read that, you should), and the sense of passage back and forth. Exchange and pact, migrating birds, there’s a sense of journey to it but a journey in cold waters.
As well as imagery of travelling, of the timeless sea present in our bodies (the ear’s dark hold) as well as beyond our shores, there’s imagery of death. The zero point, the cold last sea. The poem for me draws parallels between journeying on the icy waves and death, a long cold journey this time without return. There’s a reminder too how little separates us, in the face of that vast emptiness how close we are. The gap between people, as between Hull and Iceland, is not so great.
What I love about this poem is it captures for me something of the feeling of the sea: the restlessness, the longing to be gone I experience when I look upon it. There’s a sense of yearning to the poem, a lure, as I write it I can hear the cries of the sea birds.
Writing about poetry is difficult. It’s hard not to sound pretentious (but I do hear those seabirds), and there are rules and language I’m simply not equipped to address. Still, poetry when its good is a sort of condensed emotional truth. It’s hard to unpack it. It has resonances which can’t easily be explained. Often too it has allusions and references which the lay reader simply won’t notice (this poem could easily have references to other poets’ work, I wouldn’t necessarily know).
Still, like any literature, like any art, one shouldn’t get intimidated because there are levels of the work that one might miss. Few of us on looking at a painting we lack the training to fully understand feel because of that we can’t enjoy the composition and the colour, the same’s true of poetry. I don’t know why it’s not more popular than it is as a form, but I find work like Angela Leighton’s a strong argument that it should be wider read than it is.