My father, his father, and the Old Man himself
― it took all three to shunt their yawl to this low ridge
and run her down the bank of plank and shingle.
Dead of night, bitter cold and always wind enough
to take them up beyond the Water Rocks,
lost to any call or help.
The kid was prone to sleep,
for which a faceful of Irish Sea
was the Old Man’s cure.
They spilled their lines and waited
for the tug of cod, ling, bass, sole.
Mackerel they gave away, or bartered for a pint of mild.
In another century, I wander up the strand at night
to watch the village men go cockling,
far out on the low-tide mud.
Bowed, silent, hardly moving, moonlight on their backs
and the sea-line breaking white behind,
they could be bards or druids, pleading with the tide.
On the shore-road the gang-master looks me up and down,
slams the van door shut, and tells me to fuck-off.
Scared I’m from the social.
And it’s easy to leave. A hired car, a smart hotel
up on the lough, the promise of good whiskey.
Enough of ghosts, and staring at vast waters.
THE GRIEVING SAINT
This was deep harbour once,
before it silted up
and the Old Man took to drink.
Twice a week small ships
nosed their way between the rocks,
into the tiny dock.
He, the pilot, and the skipper,
were always first ashore,
first to the Anchor Bar.
They said you couldn’t move on the quay
that night the lifeboat came back
with a dead Polish sailor.
The coxswain searched his pockets
and brandished a bent tin saint,
the carried child rubbed away to nothing ―
Christopher’s trust, lost to lonely watches
on a thrashing sea, the Atlantic night,
each dark wave an opening grave.
The priest knelt down and pressed
the grieving saint into the dead man’s hand,
and sent them both on their way.
Paul O'Prey is a poet, anthologist, translator and scholar. His most recent book of poems Fleet (Melos Press, 2021) traces the course of London’s buried river. Other works include two anthologies, Poems from the Front and Counter-Wave: Poetry of Rescue in the First World War, two volumes of Robert Graves’s Selected Letters (Hutchinson), his Selected Poems (Penguin), and Collected Writings on Poetry (Carcanet).