Avast! In scale, power and sheer unpredictability, there is nothing like the sea to inspire in both a physical and creative sense. Never homogenous, it is often astonishingly beautiful and offers up a beguiling mix of complexity and change on a micro and macro level – from the dance of exquisite plankton to the erosion of chunks of coastline.
The sea is an awesome theme for an anthology and one with a multiplicity of poetic responses. How to navigate such a shifting, emotive topic? The Emma Press Anthology of the Sea turns its gaze inwards, towards the mind, and its projections onto the ocean. Refreshingly, it moves away from more established, and traditionally masculine concerns of salty derring-do, and asks questions instead of the self in relation to the ocean.
This small anthology – subtitled ‘Poems for a Voyage Out’ – examines, as the blurb puts it, ‘how the mind can fathom the ocean’s depths’ with poets embarking on ‘voyages of self-discovery’. Thankfully, many of the poems are saltier and sharper than these ‘voyages of discovery’ might suggest, particularly those with undertones of ecological or personal peril.
The editor, Eve Lacey, has split the book into four sections – Ashore, Adrift, Awash and Avast, each negotiating a facet of our relationship with the sea, in an order that implies a faint narrative swell. Perhaps because of this, and unlike larger anthologies, I was drawn to read it sequentially and Sarah Howe’s ‘Coast of Bohemia’ makes a vital opening to the ‘Ashore’ section, with its portrayal of a roving mind ‘reading’ the dynamic texture of a beach:
diminishes & something is
erased. What first
seems a shipwrecked
dress, the paltering
eye (hungry for humanness)
a sand-hauled jib. Still it is
is crying: saltgrass, trinkets
laid on a mauled
tarp, a shred of oftsucked lace
Many of the poems in ‘Ashore’ teeter (aptly) on the edge of the ocean – the place where humanity is most likely to be found and the strongest work crosses the boundaries where sea and land uneasily meet – an area ripe for personification. There is implicit violence in Jacqueline Saphra’s beach at low tide in ‘To My Little Sister at the Shore’:
Its skin of tarry sand,
stripped naked, waits
for the turn:
the tide’s tender crush;
as when a bigger body,
upon a smaller one
to keep it safe.
To keep it safe.
Claire Trevien’s ‘La Vielle’, captures the glowing/glowering voice of a lighthouse on the Gorlebella Rock in Brittany:
Hear me clatter my beams
across the velvet song.
[…] I smell
of freshly-drawn claws
phrased by light.
I rise roaring
The ‘Adrift’ section of the book is more infused with personal peril and the self at risk from annihilation. In Diana Whitney’s ‘Outer Heron II’, risk is palpable:
You said, watch the horizon. A line
doesn’t move – but it did, it did […]
[…] Even the channel bell clangs a warning –
changing, changing, changed.
The ‘Awash’ section of the book brought for me an enjoyable immersion in salt water and I particularly relished those poems that delighted in stretching language.
All seas, surely, contain intimations of play, even if just at the edges, and Susan Richardson’s ‘Play’ brought to mind Les Murray’s wonderful animal poems from Translations from the Natural World. Richardson inhabits the voice of the Lamna nasus, otherwise known as the porbeagel, a species of mackerel shark. It’s a protean-looking creature with a tipped snout and undercut jaw:
love quickswim and squidding
love egging little finniness
love best when frondling kelp.
Playful qualities of language also abound in Nancy Campbell’s gorgeous poem ‘William Scoresby Junior dreams of his wife Mary Eliza while sailing off the East Coast of Greenland in 1882’:
my darklight, I bottlenose you
my flat-aback I fid you
my fox, I careen you
my galliot, I junk you
Like most interesting writing, the book raises more unknowns than returns answers; several examine the idea of the sea as a portal or a solution to exist in, others raise questions of immersion, and absolution even. In Natalya Anderson’s poem ‘Wake’ time loops back on itself:
We wade in, our dresses
bloat then flatten like beached parachutes,
and your fingers find my shoulders in a way
I won’t recognise as reassuring until
they are my baby’s. I never want to be saved
Ideas of salvation also ripple through Katherine Gallagher’s ‘The Lifeboat Shed’ where people ‘peer through the windows’ of an RNLI station, ‘lined into/the oldest dream, of being saved …’
I found myself returning to Jan Heritage’s ‘Alternative Air Source’ which uses diving (or simply, being underwater) as a delicate extended metaphor for parenthood (and indeed all forms of co-dependency) –
you left me no option
but to learn to fin,
acquire a buoyancy
of sorts, so that I might be
not too far away,
could always check the air,
breathe for us both,
Also striking was Joseph Minden’s extraordinary ‘Seachange’ – an ambitious and explicitly ecologically-conscious poem that weaves elements and characters from Greek myth (Proteus and Poseidon) with the modern ‘plague’ of plastic that blights our oceans. Minden describes plastics littering the gyres (a garbage patch likened to the size of Texas by scientists) as ‘sprinklings’ and warns of insidious, sinister pollutants working their way up the food chain. In the closing stanza, he compares the death of the sea to ‘genocide’ and warns, in horribly soft tones: ‘The killing is so silently done.’
The Emma Press Anthology of the Sea is an amphibious little book as much concerned with internal states of mind as physical realities; a stance which frames this heavily anthologized topic in a fresh and modern way. From Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner to The Seafarer, literature is awash with compelling stories and poems about the oceans but so much of our relationship with the sea has been concerned with conquest, of harnessing its power to our own ends, mastering territory, and of over-riding currents and (trade) winds. This little book is not concerned with such matters.
Some of the poems spoke more to me than others, but this is always the case with any collection. Read it for a thoughtful ‘sampler’ of our parlous relationship with the ocean and a grave reminder that, as Brian Grant writes in the closing line of the book, ‘all of us are closer to the beach’.
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