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.
Wind-whittled, turned on the sea’s lathe too long,
built by a craftsman who can’t leave it alone:
the trees scoured off, the houses pared down
to their stones, the animals less skin than bone.
We walk to Windhoose, find a barn even the ghosts
have left, a sheep’s spine turning on a string,
a name reduced to nothing but it’s sound,
the wind repeating it until we answer speechlessly.
Our silences have come to be the better part of us.
The coastline’s fingers reaching for the sea
and mine for ledges in the sodden cliffs.
The dog finding the grey harp of a wing
or clenching a jawbone between her teeth
as if she’s going to wring the history out.
The way those lovers on the clifftop path
must hug within an inch of life
until one of them confesses everything.
Below, an otter mines the water,
gets a single truth from it.
iv. Aurora Borealis
How typical of us: thinking that pale green corridor
cutting across the blacked-out Baliasta road
must be a searchlight, hunting us.
We clutched each other as we never would again
then skittered towards home, imagining we were
extras in a B movie: the Shetland hills huge UFOs,
or the whole island a slumbering beast whose back
we clung to, this the beam of his mate’s eye.
We looked down from that slender radiance
to watch our steps along the track,
and missed the sky’s brief fire, the North
lighting its own touchpaper and standing back.
[Helen Mort was born in Sheffield in 1985. She has published two pamphlets with tall-lighthouse press and her first collection Division Street is forthcoming from Chatto & Windus in 2013. From 2010-2011, she was poet in residence at The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere.]
Copyright © 2011
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