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
 

I

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:                   

 

Blue?

Blue.

Now, will you

 

Step out into an unknown element?

 

 

Tick tock, tick tock,                                         Cobwebs doon the lonnen,

Hurryin’, scurryin’,

High wetter, low wetter,                                         Blue lowes i’ the fire,

Spring come early,

Hour-glass, weather-glass,                            Black scum on the wetter,

Berrellin’, derrellin’,

Tick tock, tick tock,                                                Better watch the tide.

Time runnin’oot.

 

 

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,

Hesitating…

 

 

Creeping, seeping,

Icy, salty,

Softly, slowly,

Tortuous, sinuous,

 

Winding, twining,

Bitter, briny,

Seeping, creeping,

Infiltrating,

 

Steeping and

Insinuating,

Drenching, drowning,

Inundating.

 

Undercurrents. Tide-rips. Sudden

Snatching torrents. The road hidden

 

And, before you,

A small white shed on stilts.

A stairway.

A door.

 

H Is 25

 

II

As if one world was not enough.

As if

 

Sanctuary was always further off,

And even the Island was not sure, or safe,

 

Beyond the shore, beneath the church, another.

 

Timeless.

 

Its clock

Ticks round in neaps, springs, weather, moons,

The flocks

 

That pause here in their tides, migrant between

One elsewhere and another. Small birds, knots,

 

Settle and unsettle,

Swerve and fall

 

Together, purposeful

As one heart, one

 

Single indrawn

Exhaled breath;

 

One truth.

 

Flickering within it,

Countless convergent

 

Streams, flights, currents

Fasten and unfasten –

 

Uncertainty, evasion,

The soft equivocation

 

Of mist, or rain.

 

H Is 10

 

III

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.

 

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IV

A burst of rapid chatter from the nest.

Into the shadowed

Dark and tarry upturned boat-shed flits

A swallow.

 

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.

 

H Is 15

 

V

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.

 

Refuge Box 9

 

VI 

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

Believer,                                                                          Insinuating,

Fugitive,                                                         Drenching, drowning,

Asylum-seeker.                                                               Inundating.

 

 

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?

 

Who? Who?

 

Seals: Hooooo.

 

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.

 

 

Who?

 

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.

 

 

Who? Who?

 

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.                                                

 

H Is 4

 

VII

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

 

Teeming, prehistoric.

 

The Slakes are in flight.

Every species sweeps

 

Onward, or dives

Deeper into the mud,

 

Burning, bubbling

Back to its origins –

 

Unimagined plains,

Deserts, continents,

 

Conglomerates of grit,

 

Indecipherable

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.

 

H Is 21