Ports

John Burnside

Pas de port. Ports inconnus.

Henri Michaux

I Haven

Our dwelling place:
                    the light above the firth;

shipping forecasts; gossip;
theorems;

         the choice of a single word, to describe
the gun-metal grey of the sky, as the gulls
flicker between the roofs

on Tolbooth Wynd.

                    Whenever we think of home
we come to this:

the handful of birds and plants we know by name,
rain on the fishmonger’s window, the walleyed plaice

freckled with spots
                    the colour of orangeade.

We look for the sifted light
that settles around the salvaged
hull of the Research
                    perched on its metal stocks
by the harbour wall
its smashed keel half-restored;
                              the workmen
caged in a narrow scaffold
                            matching the ghosts
of umber and blanc-de-Chine.

We notice how dark it is
                        a dwelling place
for something in ourselves that understands

the beauty of wreckage
                         the beauty
of things submerged

II Urlicht

                    – our
dwelling place:
                    a catalogue of wrecks
and slants of light –

never the farmsteader’s vision
of angels, his wayside shrines
to martyrs and recent saints
                         the rain
gleaming on wrapped chrysanthemums
                         forced
roses and pinks –

here we have nothing to go on
                             or nothing more
than light and fog
                  a shiver in the wind
or how the sky can empty
all at once
          when something like music comes
                                            or rather
something like the gap between a sound
and silence
            like the ceasing of a bell

or like the noise a tank makes as it fills
and overflows

            how everyone expects
that moment, when a borrowed motor stalls
halfway across the channel, and you sit
quiet, amazed by the light
                          aware
of everything
                aware of shoals stars
shifting around you, endlessly

entwined.
          Our neighbour
                          John
who spends his free time diving

plumbing the sea for evidence and spilt
cargoes
        who has burrowed in the mud
to touch the mystery of something
absolute

        can tell you how
                        out in the Falklands
he walked inland
climbing a slope where blown sand turned to grass
the emptiness over his head
like a form of song.
He still has the pictures he took
                                    of backward glances
of whale bones on the shore
                          the wind exact
and plaintive in the whited vertebrae.

He’d been out diving
                    finding the shallow wrecks
of coalships from Wales
                       and one old German
sail-boat, whose quick-thinking crew
had scuppered it just offshore
to douse a fire

its cargo of beer and gunpowder
still in the hold,
each stoppered bottle
sealed with water weed.

                        He’d walked less than a mile
when, settled upon its haunches
                                as if it had recently
stopped to rest

he found a carcass: one of those feral
cattle that wander the dunes
                            a long forgotten
ghost of husbandry.

It might have been there for years
                                  but it looked alive
the way it had been preserved
in the cold, dry air
and he stood in the wind to listen
                                 as if he might hear
radio in the horns
                  or ancient voices
hanging in the vacuum of the skull.

He had his camera
           but couldn’t take
the picture he wanted
                      the one he thinks of now
as perfect
          he couldn’t betray
that animal silence
                  the threadwork of grass through the hide,
the dwelling place
                  inherent in the spine

                                        that

III Moorings

kinship of flesh with flesh.

                              When we go walking
early
      at the furled edge of the sea

we find dark webs of crabmeat
                              herring-bone
                                   wet

diaphragms of stranded jellyfish;
spring water mingles with salt
                              beneath the church
where Anstruther’s dead
                              are harboured in silent loam;

sea-litter washes the wall where the graveyard ends
a scatter of shells and hairweed
                                and pebbles of glass
made smooth
            in the sway of the tide.

From here
          amongst the angel-headed stones
we see the town entire:
                      the shiplike kirk;
the snooker hall above the library;
the gift-shop on the corner
                      windows packed
with trinkets of glass
             and pictures of towns like this;

a rabble of gulls:
                  the scarlet and cherry red
of lifebelts and cars:
                      the bus that will wait by the dock
for minutes
           before it returns
to Leven.

          By evening the harbour belongs to men at work.
They’re swaddled in orange or lime-green
overalls
        their faces sheathed
in perspex:
             crouched to the blue
of their torches
                they are innocent
of presence
            flashes and sparks
dancing in the blackness of their masks
as if in emptiness.

Sometimes we stand in the cold
and watch them for hours
                         the way
they bend into the flame
like celebrants
                immune to everything
that moves or falls around them
                                isolates
suspended in the constancy of fire.
         This time of year
it’s night by five o’clock

and as we walk
               we harbour something new
                                        the old pain
neutral and stilled in our blood
like a shipwreck observed from a distance
                                          or one of those
underwater shapes we sometimes glimpse
through hairweed and clouded sand
                                    a shifting form
that catches the eye for a moment

then disappears.

At dusk, above the street
                           above the painted
shopfronts and roofs
and children walking home in twos and threes

it starts to snow.
                  At one end of the quay
a boat is docked
it’s mostly fishing vessels here
                               but this
is tusk-white
              with a terracotta keel

a pleasure boat
                a hope pursued through years
of casual loss.

It’s unattended now
                 but you could guess
its owner from the writing on the hull

a stencilled row of characters that spell
against the painted wood
                      the word

SERENITY.

In daylight, it would seem
almost absurd:
too sentimental
               gauche
                inaccurate
a weekend sailor’s image of the sea

but now
       as snow descends into the rings
of torchlight
              and the sky above the harbour
darkens
        it is only what it seems:
a name for something wanted
                           and believed

no more or less correct than anything
we use to make a dwelling in the world.