steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Guns and Alexanders


I said I'd try to do a more extensive write-up of my Steep Holm day. This isn't exactly that, and there's quite a bit I've left out, but here at least are more photographs, which I've blended with some of the poems I wrote on the day (and just after). Hopefully it will "give you the feel", as Wordsworth was so fond of saying off-mike. There's a lot more to Steep Holm than the military, of course, but this set seems to have coagulated around that theme.



In the crosshairs of the barbette
A Georgian gun
Points airward.

The tempered iceberg hides its length
In earth, in which it floats
As if uncertain of its element.

What necromantic skill
Summoned this Napoleonic junk
Mid-century, for “one more job”,
Putting it so thriftily to use
As pivot for a snout
Of rifled steel
To tilt on?

And what wind-blowing seeds from ‘67
Have rooted in its barrel
(The monster lying beside it slain,
A seat for picnics)
And rendered awful death
So ornamental?

Rudder Rock


The Romans had no head for masonry
To judge them by the signal station wall –
A piece of work no Dalesman would let pass,
Except that it has stood since Constantine.

Those Latin squaddies had a job to do,
Dubonni to the left of them
Silures to the right,
Flaring a beacon west, where
Crouched under that ridge of sea lies
Unsuspected America.


Sight and distance cannot be finessed.
Generals deal in politics, but
Sappers take their orders from
Implacable geometry.
When wars and armies fail,
Sharp eyes still seek the place of vantage.

Theodoric sits in Ravenna
Charlemagne in Aachen
Godfrey in Jerusalem.
Tommy and his lads lag
Fifteen hundred
Years behind, but
Home on this selfsame ground –

"The west tip of a hairy dag
Dangled from Britain’s arse."
Here’s the place to set their clyster-pipes,
Through which the French, who
(Says Lord Palmerston)
Would take the Mother Country from behind,
Must be flushed out.


Their grandsons followed them,
Bisecting the barbette with concrete,
So just was this spot
For patrol of sea and sky.
Whiling the Hitler war away, they daubed their names
In deadly gules, and even their paint was
Full of lead.


Within the store-room cairn
Their names are palimpsestuous:
The generations mix
Numbers, hands and faces,
Stencilling their voices in the dark.

We hear them too at Maeshowe, Lascaux, anywhere:
Echoes sound all alike.

Low Tide

An exhaled tide trims past,
Skinning the knuckles of the beach
As if the sea were just a stony brook
And not a float for ships
High as this cliff.

Sudden as the stopping of a clock
The see-saw ceases, and
Between its fingertips holds
A delicate sky-blue egg.

Watch, in this filmy bubble,
An image rising from the Cadbury-brown,
Stone by stone unfolded from the fluid,
Developed, fixed –
A perfect gooseneck!


This foaming Cytherean would be miraculous,
If only Venus were a fowl
Tricked out with shells and worms of honeycomb.

Honeycomb worm

Blood is their Argument


The wars of the gulls are never-ending.
Their young, dead or alive,
Are equal provocation.


They dream of smashed shells,
Chicks spitted on pike-sharp beaks
The insult of a white feather
Streaked with blood,
Stiff with albumen,
Threaded with maggots,
And know not if their torment is
Prophecy or remembrance,
Outrage suffered
Or sharp revenge to come.


We pass in pairs among them,
Calling for barley,
Waving each a branch of alexander,
Through what was farmland once
And once a farmer's house:
A monoculture now
Of snow-white heads.


Our umbellifers are ridiculous,
And cannot stem the rain that falls
From the guano-grey sky.
Waddling Chaplins, we must be antlered
(The muntjac in the undergrowth are sniggering):
No wonder the stuka-screaming gulls
Hold us in contempt,
Whose cry has been our Jericho.


Routed at evening, we flee the beach.
The Holm Hotel’s abandoned eyes are weeping glass,
And small boats come to carry us away
To Wales and England, north and south,
Our petty thalassocracy
Washed by the tide.

Upon that babbling, Babylonian shore each of us leaves
A withered alexander.
Tags: my writing, real life, steep holm
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