Two Poems

Robin Robertson

Between the Harvest and the Hunter’s Moon

Returning from war, or the rumours of war,
I shelter in the lea of the great stone eagle’s head
that marks the edge of Carn Boel,
what remains of my uniform
tattered and tailed
as velvet from antlers, as moss
flayed from this stretching rack of rock.

From here, the sea is scalloped
in marbled endpapers of green and blue and grey;
it’s hard to tell if the long black shapes
are drifting seals, or reefs,
or sailors sleeping in the shallows.
Waves trail in, darkening with height and depth,
almost black before they turn
and crush themselves white:
the rocks milking the wave to a froth of sea-foam
blown two hundred feet up
onto this cliff-edge
to join the bog cotton,
as the sea hollows out dolmens,
chambered cairns and standing stones
in the slow worship of erosion.

Under the still October sun
the stones are dancing in the fields,
bright-diademed with lichen;
the sea below begins to slide and pitch, the sun
shattering again and again
to a million answering lights.

From the Armed Knight to Nanjizal,
the rain’s grey searchlights
draw across the headlands,
flushing out the birds: the wheedling
keck of jackdaws, as they throw themselves
like soot around the deep ravine;
crows and bald-faced rooks
make heavy weather of the tussock grass;
the raven croaks its thick call
as it levers itself into the air:
a deep and hollow pruk pruk pruk.
Above them, through the ribs of rain,
triangulating gulls monitor the turn in the day,
inclining into the gale’s brunt, the coming storm.

Grass struggles in its thin veneer of earth,
among this embattled work of stone: granite
crenellated by wind, imbedded with feldspar,
mica, quartz, and the thin black
crystal threads of tourmaline.
I carry stones wherever I go:
it is bad luck not to leave
a cairn on top of the rock,
a stone on top of the cairn.
I shoulder my pack and walk on.

The land is draining of colour and life:
the hills russet and grey
with spent bracken and heather.
Wind ploughs the moor-grass
along the grain of sheep-runs;
the sheep huddle at the wind’s mouth
with the first lash of rain, the scour,
stripping the sycamores of their last leaves,
the torrent leashing down.
Thrushes and blackbirds
flit through driven wind; the larks
frantic in the blackthorn,
in the lanterns of gorse, and all this
lit by a wrecking light.

Darkness comes down
like an empty glass
and the ground shakes off the last of the rain.
I reach the elm-wood,
under the rookery,
slip a bullet in the breech and wait here
in this dark,
between the harvest and the hunter’s moon.

Holding Proteus

Becalmed here
on this salt beach far from home,
my boat blisters and flakes in the sun;
it has forgotten the sea
as I have forgotten the sea’s purpose,
which is to change.
Sea-voyager, law-maker, warrior,
I walk in my own footprints now
around this island,
around myself, waiting for wind, trying
to hazard the heart’s meridian,
a draught of air, a star to steer by.

My hands have been still for so long
they can’t tell what they hold.

I’ve tried to buy the wind with coins
thrown from the water’s edge, whistled
till my lips were raw, taken a whip
to the ship’s boy, cut a pig’s throat
with my own sword, sung
each of the supplicant songs,
untied all three magic knots in the cord
– no breeze, no wind, no storm.
The sea is deadpan.
I have worshipped the wrong gods.

I fall asleep over my book
of maps and legends, and I am char,
I am the fire-flags in the ashes of the field,
black-drowned in the marl-pit,
the unstrung heretic crouched in marram.
I am that rocking grief, those numb limbs.
I am the child, abandoned on the beach.

You turn, in my arms, to a deer,
a dolphin, shivering aspen, tiger, eel,
lithe root of flame and broken water.
I hold you fast, until you are flesh again,
seal-herder, seer, sea-guardian:
you who can only tell the truth,
show me how to find a fresh wind
and a safe harbour.

I wake to sea-storm, sunstorm, bright waves;
the sea-wind tearing pages from my book.