Sea-Fret

Robin Robertson

The prominent headland at Tynemouth in Northumberland was the site of an Anglian monastery before the Benedictine priory was established early in the 11th century. Because of the area’s strategic importance, the monastic life coexisted with a military one, and the priory developed within a castle enclosure. These fortifications remained in use after the Dissolution, the coastal battery offering protection to the mouth of the Tyne during the wars against France and Germany. The guns were decommissioned in 1956.

The North Light gone
in a smoke of sea-spray,
its stone still riding in
and out of sight; the frayed
pennons and bannerets
of the tide-crests
all that is visible now,
in the haar-light
and the shoaling rain.

The sea moves its white hands
along the breakwater, blindly
trying for a way in;
successive waves
crash and recoil
at the base of the cliff,
slow and attritional
under the east salient,
scathing the stone revetment
with that interminable refrain,
that petitionary, leaden
litany of the sea.

Kittiwakes quarter
the grey sweep, mewling
through a squall of sea-wired
black-backed gulls.
Oblivious,
stunt-flying fulmars
stall and glide, sail-
planing in long curves,
letting their feet
drag each brake and turn
as they skim the sides
of Penbal Crag – the head
of the rampart on the rock.

*

Where broken and eroded stones
still reef the headland’s brow,
the burial-ground’s strewn markers
paraphrase – in simple miniature –
the fretted ruin
of the thousand-year-old priory:
these worn, sea-dimpled gravestones
honeycombed by salt.

Malcolm Canmore,
son of the Duncan
murdered by Macbeth,
is buried here
on the southernmost edge
of his brief kingdom,
and Anna Kewney,
thirteen years and five months,

a grief in the hearts of her parents
which time alone can assuage,
but can never efface.

18th day of March, 1856.

*

The chantry’s rose-window
sights east along the barrel
of the rusted six-inch gun.
By the remains of the lighthouse
and the battery observation post,
the Benedictine well:
the cover of the well
the iris shutter,
the well-water its lens.
The unchanging view
from this camera obscura

never the same:
the colours
of the northern sky,
each day’s
dissolving
to a glossary of light.

*

A face of steel and concrete
on a head of stone,
the gun emplacements
stare out narrowly
at the open sea.
Underneath, under ground,
soft workers of the inner body
move in its dark cloister,
candled here and there
by lamps in glazed recesses
set in the passage wall.
Shell canisters gleam
bluntly in the claustral light,
stacked on wooden skidding racks,
unarmed as yet, unblessed.

At the copper door
of the shifting lobby
– the sacristy or tiring-house –
the rubric demands the ritual:

Wipe your boots and shoes
on Mat ‘B’; remove
your outer garments
and hang them on Peg ‘A’.
Pass the barrier in your socks
and underclothes, put on
the magazine clothes ‘C’
and magazine shoes ‘D’
and go to your work.

In linen vestments and felt slippers
the working party
enters the cartridge store.
Behind them, on hooks,
their accoutrements and uniform,
boots lined up, bright
along the darkened floor.
The metal buttons glint; the polished
steel-caps
flint and spark.

Inside the shell-filling room, the solemn
and most tender rite of ordinance:
the raising of the shell to the shell-block;
the slotting-home of the cartridge;
the slow
elevation of the charged shell.
The platen is wiped clean of powder
And the process begins again.
A bell is rung in the sealed chamber:
the transfigured steel
is drawn above
and issued to the guns.

*

The wind off the sea
like a thrown knife;
a styptic cold
over the concrete half-moon batteries,
the barbican and sanctuary:
all the exposed relics
in this reliquary of light.

There is no raised stone
the rain cannot macerate;
no face left legible,
no legend uneffaced.
Rust, the penetrant,
turns iron maculate:
leaving it,
flaked to a filigree of red.
The sea performs its fretwork.
The edging wind eats everything.

Under the crucial rock,
alexanders and brassica
are all that remain
of the monks’ garden:
Mediterranean imports
gone native
into the saxifrage and sea-fern grass,
the thrift and red valerian.
The scrub peters out
as the land falls away, into cliff,
as it all falls away
into sea air.
The waves reducing
all this handiwork to a shell,
and all the shells to sand.