Katrina Porteous lives on the Northumberland coast and is best known for her long radio-poems. The following excerpts are taken from one of these, ‘The Refuge Box’, which she made for BBC Radio 3’s ‘Between the Ears’ in 2007 with producer Julian May. The full text will be published in Katrina’s new collection from Bloodaxe in 2014-15. The poem is based on the idea of sanctuary, that of humans and wildlife, and is set around Holy Island in Northumberland. This is a tidal island with a causeway which one can drive across at low tide. Half way between island and coast is the ‘refuge box’, raised above the causeway for anyone caught out by the incoming tide. The poem includes chants for two voices, set out here in paired columns, and the sound of seals, birds, wind and water. The accompanying photographs were taken by Katrina during the making of the poem. www.katrinaporteous.co.uk
At the edge of the Low, the wind blows cold.
A world that is water and not water
Stretches away, reticulate;
Shaken within it, redshank, godwit,
Their scraps and patches of safety shrinking,
Spreading. Miles of sand-flats. Glittering
Streams and ribbons of water, weaving
Earth and sky; between them, the golden
Island, afloat on equivocation,
Or safely grounded there, the tide
Either coming or going around it, the road
Snaking towards it, narrow, human.
Fade up seals, low Hooooo.
You reach the Danger sign, and stop.
You want it, that Island, stretched out like a ship
Ashore on its saltings, adrift in a sea
So blue and endless, you’d think the sky
Had swallowed it up, or else had fallen
Smack down into its own reflection.
Out from the causeway, over the sand,
Guideposts narrow towards the Island,
The mirror-image of their own
Vanishing – an invitation.
The Slakes answer the sky’s question:
Now, will you
Step out into an unknown element?
Tick tock, tick tock, Cobwebs doon the lonnen,
High wetter, low wetter, Blue lowes i’ the fire,
Spring come early,
Hour-glass, weather-glass, Black scum on the wetter,
Tick tock, tick tock, Better watch the tide.
Tentative, the tide, a feather,
Brushes the tarmac, skimming over,
Again, another – films of water
Lapping, crossing, catching hold,
Fizzing, creeping up the road,
An edge of paper, smouldering.
Ten minutes is all it takes.
Then, in the distance, the uncertain
Rattle of a motor. Idle,
Undercurrents. Tide-rips. Sudden
Snatching torrents. The road hidden
And, before you,
A small white shed on stilts.
As if one world was not enough.
Sanctuary was always further off,
And even the Island was not sure, or safe,
Beyond the shore, beneath the church, another.
Ticks round in neaps, springs, weather, moons,
That pause here in their tides, migrant between
One elsewhere and another. Small birds, knots,
Settle and unsettle,
Swerve and fall
As one heart, one
Flickering within it,
Streams, flights, currents
Fasten and unfasten –
The soft equivocation
Of mist, or rain.
At Green Shiel, the sun beats down
On the shapes of deserted houses,
On willow bush and fireweed
And the white grass of Parnassus,
On stones of byre and bedroom,
Hearths, hidden in bent grass.
A doorway, a threshold, a beginning.
Here, snail and bunting
Have made their shelter. Peace
Is life, continuing
Oblivious, without us –
Our better selves, our children –
Here, in this hollow of ruins.
A burst of rapid chatter from the nest.
Into the shadowed
Dark and tarry upturned boat-shed flits
Last month it was safe in the egg,
The egg secure in the nest,
The nest shrugged tight in the scarphed oak frames
Of the upturned wreck,
Its planks stiffened with sailcloth
And its sails with tar;
And heaped inside from gunwale to keel,
Anchors, rope, oars –
Woodworm and rust.
All the Island possessed.
Then out of the white egg, out
Of the nest, the cupped hands
Of the boat, beached, never to sail again,
Into the sun
And the wind’s currents
Bursts – a bullet,
The blue of Africa on its wings,
In its bandit’s mask, a red flash of desert,
Already burning in its skull,
A spelk of magnet.
Slanting over the Sneuk, over
Goswick, that sky-writing, ominous, ancient
Far-away, frightening, almost
Legible. Whose hand, whose voice
Whispers over vast distances, ice
Creaking in it, snow?
No one. But for miles at the tide’s edge, geese –
Dark straggles of them, raise
Oaths, hymns, gutturals; and Fenham,
Stirring in its sleep,
In its own rank, spicy smells, its dribbles,
Its ooze, its salt-juices, its tidal creaks,
Opens itself to the sky, to the world, absorbs
Streams, strings of cells pouring
Down from nowhere into one dark body –
A rabble, a squabble, a whole hullabaloo
Trying to make sense of its singleness, an orchestra
Tuning its thousand primitive instruments,
Half bagpipe, half trumpet.
Curlew, godwit, Creeping, seeping,
Lapwing, plover, Icy, salty,
On the run Softly, slowly,
Before the weather, Tortuous, sinuous,
Brent goose, white wing, Winding, twining,
Migrant, vagrant, Bitter, briny,
Bird of passage, Seeping, creeping,
Traveller, emigrant, Infiltrating,
Pilgrim, refugee, Steeping and
Fugitive, Drenching, drowning,
The wind dies down. The tide advances. All is still.
Out on the far sand rig, the seals
Raise their voices to the darkening sky.
Who are they singing to sleep with their lullabies?
I, Mark Bell,
Of Wooler Haugh Head, employed on the afternoon
Of September the fifth eighteen-hundred and one, conveying a gentleman
Onto the Island, turned for home, with another postillion
Over the sand, dark having not long fallen,
The coach creaking into the fog like our own funeral.
I, Harry Foreman,
Butcher of Lowick in my blue-striped apron,
Bid ower-lang in the Northumberland Arms wi’ Geordie Wilson,
Red nose, hot fire. One for the road? Why not, son. Soon
Cold in my liver, in my heart cold, cold in my marrow-bone,
My money-bag around my neck, an end-stone.
I, Jean Bowes, who, with my husband,
Clicked off the lights and locked the door behind us
And headed in our purple Triumph Herald
Into the dark, the windscreen wipers waving
Goodbye, goodbye. We were looking forward
To Christmas, the holly berries blazed
Brightly over the mantelpiece. Before us lay
Rain, spray; the headlights useless, hard to find
The road, impossible. The car door slammed.
How cold your hand was, John, out on that sand.
My ticking watch, stopped at 3.30 a.m.
I am in flight
From the spin, from the things that I know that I do not know,
From the crush, from the crowds, from the push from the shove from the street
From the ice-age, from the heat-wave, from the fluttering heart-beat
At the core of it all; from the unseen hole
In the ozone’s eye; from the fossil-fuel
In the soot-black, oil-rich mouth of the melting-pot.
From the permafrost.
From the drip, drip, drip
Of its shrinking ice; from the jumbo-jet;
From the stink, from the smoke, from the smog, from the slick
Of the gridlocked highways’ car exhaust;
From the desert’s breath, the glacier’s roar,
From the sun’s frank stare, from the climate police,
From the blazing forest, glimpsed from space,
From the rising tide, from the sea at our feet –
At our children’s feet –
Send us an air-lift, a lifeboat, an ark –
Or at least
A refuge box.
An hour before sunrise, sharp
Over the Island, the morning star
Pierces the first blue, and light flows.
Beneath the refuge box, the road
Emerges. First, the bridge. The Low
Seethes, its rip-tide spittle-flecked.
Slowly, the laminates part, pull back.
Behind their scalloped edge, the tarmac
Glitters; beside it, knotted coils
Of lugworm casts, and starry snails.
The tide sucks out. Not an even sheet
But a puzzle of pools. Its dazzling circuits
Fizz with seed and spawn, its brightness
Shimmering, the sky a race
Of shadows, tumbling brilliance
Streaming south, unstoppable.
The world is making itself again,
Piecing itself together, pinned
With spelks of glass and steely light.
The redshank, its beak
A sensitive pinprick,
Feels worms, snails,
Twitch beneath it. Cities,
Pulsing, gorge on silt.
Across the mud-flats, cells,
Hungry for light, split,
Peel and multiply.
The road is a reef,
The mud beyond it, life
The Slakes are in flight.
Every species sweeps
Onward, or dives
Deeper into the mud,
Back to its origins –
Conglomerates of grit,
From endless rewriting.
Sand, sky and a flock
Of dunlin, shaken up.
Sediment in a glass.
They rise as one, and drift
Before the wind and tide
From mud-bank to sand-spit;
And scattered populations,
Blown like smoke, flow
Across earth’s curve, to pick
Here, among the wreckage.