National Poetry Month, day 17: A particular sea from a particular spot

The North Sea is a place I’ve never seen, but the connotations I have of it are a deep sea of cold, gray waters. The North Sea is the body across which the Vikings came on their voyages of plunder, and now the North Sea is dotted with oil derricks that drill for precious fuel. It is, by every account I know, not an easy sea to live around or to love. This may be unfair, but it’s the North Sea I “know”.

All our impressions of larger places, or entire regions, or seas, are grounded in how we experience them, if at all, from specific spots. Someone who lives in Chicago will probably have a much different sense of Lake Michigan than someone who lives on Beaver Island, at that lake’s far end.

Poet Anne Stevenson (1933-2020) writes here about the North Sea as experienced from Carnoustie, a town on Scotland’s eastern coast, northeast of Edinburgh. The photo above I found by searching Flickr’s map; that is the North Sea from Carnoustie. I wonder if that’s the kind of thing Stevenson had in mind in writing this poem.

“North Sea off Carnoustie”, by Anne Stevenson

for Jean Rubens

You know it by the northern look of the shore,
by the salt-worried faces,
by an absence of trees, and an abundance of lighthouses.
It’s a serious ocean.

Along marram-scarred, sandbitten margins
wired roofs straggle out to where
a cold little holiday fair
has floated in and pitched itself
safely near the prairie of the golf course.
Coloured lights are sunk deep into the solid wind,
but all they’ve caught is a pair of lovers
and three silly boys.
Everyone else has a dog.
Or a room to get to.

The smells are of fish and of sewage and cut grass.
Oystercatchers, doubtful of habitation,
clamour ‘weep, weep, weep’ as they fuss over
scummy black rocks the tide leaves for them.

The sea is as near as we come to another world.

But there in your stony and windswept garden
a blackbird is confirming the grip of the land.
‘You, you,’ he murmurs, dark purple in his voice.

And now in far quarters of the horizon
lighthouses are awake, sending messages–
invitations to the landlocked,
warnings to the experienced,
but to anyone returning home from the planet ocean,
candles in the windows of a safe earth.


From The Oxford Book of The Sea.

(image credit)

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