Yesterday wood s lot featured the poetry of Helen Mort, hitherto unknown to me, and I liked it a lot; just from the line “the small, white knuckle of a distant farm” you can tell she’s a real poet. (Great name, too.) The first excerpt was “Hermaness,” the start of her sequence “North of Everywhere“:
Last night, my body was a compass needle
drawing me past every place I’d once called North:
past Sheffield’s border lands, the sleeping giant
of Manchester, grey towns en route to Aberdeen
then silently across the waterway to Lerwick
where my bearings ferried me past Baltasound,
the sloughed down moors, past Norwick bay
where waves worry at rock all day.
By nightfall, I’d approached the edge of Unst,
the land curtseying to meet the sea,
a lighthouse with no keeper but a resting gull,
the tide, dragged from a North
I couldn’t even dream. I stopped
and let my heart go on ahead of me.
And I realized that aside from the fine rhythm of the lines, what especially attracted me was the sequence of names: Sheffield, Manchester, Aberdeen, Lerwick, Baltasound… There’s a basic appeal (at least to me) in the unpredictable and often opaque blocks of letters that interrupt the sequence of ideas and images, naming places I’ve never been and can only dimly imagine; that’s one of the pleasures of the oft-maligned Catalog of Ships in Homer. And it reminded me of a poem I liked enough back four decades ago to copy, all forty-four lines of it, into the commonplace book I kept at the time and have managed to hang on to since; I’ll quote the first stanza of Richard Eberhart’s “Will,” from the Saturday Review of March 28, 1970:
What is will but the advent of the free?
Is the sailor who sails on the sea, whose vessel
Descends from Eagle Light to shoal Duck Harbor on Ile au Haut,
Casting anchor near the weir, and remaining overnight,
Voyaging outward in the morning, out to the open ocean
Turning east to the bull music of Roaring Bull Ledge,
Going thence northeast before a following southwester
To the Light of Swans Island, thence to Frenchboro
And up the chart to Placentia, west across Blue Hill Bay,
Across Jericho, and into Eggemoggin Reach and through it,
Back to mooring near Weir Cove on Cape Rosier,
(It continues “Nearer to reality than a man of land sitting on the shore” and on for another half-dozen lines before the sentence ends; it’s a long-breathed poem.) The magniloquent first line appealed to me (though I couldn’t tell you what it meant, then or now), I immediately liked the internal rhyme free/sea, but what really grabbed me were those wonderful Maine place names—I’ve never forgotten the line “Across Jericho, and into Eggemoggin Reach and through it,” and occasionally mutter it to myself as a kind of incantation.