The second of this series of reflections on chapbooks.
Alan Gay’s chapbook centres around the Eyemouth Disaster of 14 October 1881 when a storm raged along the east coast of Scotland. It destroyed entire fleets and killed hundreds of people. The fishing village of Eyemouth, a microcosm of the whole event, saw 213 dead, one third of the male population. In addition to the loss of life, the blow to the livelihood of the communities was incalculable.
Alan Gay’s aim is to tell the story from the point of view of the fishermen who were on the seas that day, as most of the historical accounts come, understandably, from family and community members who remained on land. Gay is well qualified to attempt this, as he is an experienced yachtsman who has seen many storms in his life, and currently lectures in meteorology and navigation.
The chapbook contains 16 poems, interspersed by useful prose background, source material that may be genuine or invented (either way, it seemed authentic), and an occasional illustration. The poetry is direct, spare, unsentimental, and succeeds in conveying the tragedy without becoming maudlin. I found a couple of the poems, Recipe and Islands in the Sky artificial – imposing a ingredient-metaphor and a too self-conscious dream onto a reality that didn’t require such artifice – but the other fourteen poems had a real vigour about them that hooked me in and kept me there.
Gale Warning has the fishing boats setting out to sea. The boats were full of experienced seamen, used to storms, but not with the sudden intensity and violence of the storm to come. The gulls circling the boats seemed to know:
shadows criss-crossing the deck
urgent, as if to warn us
to heed the signs:
the heel of a hand on the horizon
fingers reaching out
to crush the sun.
The poems describing the storm and the fishermen’s reactions to it were well researched and described as only someone who has seen a storm or two could manage. At times, I would have liked a little more lyricism alongside the narrative, but there is certainly a compelling surge, a direct power about the descriptions, so that you can almost feel you’re on the boat, seeing things through the fishermen’s eyes.
In The Hurkurs, the boat slows in a trough and is then lifted onto the crest of a wave. This, Alan Gay explains in a note, is the most dangerous moment for a boat, when the loss of momentum leaves it most defenceless against the wind. On the crest, they catch sight of rocks downwind, with land just beyond the rocks:
a picture we carry into the next trough
and know there’s no escape.
Better the sea’s rage
than the madness of land.
You can sense intimately the desperate plight of the men and the equally desperate decisions that had to be made. It was safer to stay at sea in the jaws of the storm than to risk heading for land, although some boats did make land. One was hurled by a wave over the rocks clean onto the sand and landed with every mast intact. Many were not so lucky.
If there is an epic quality to these poems, there is also a quiet sadness and, at times, even a mysterious quality. Hares on Twin Law Cairns begins with the curious:
In the dawn I see myself wade free of the sea
as if the narrator is watching himself from somewhere else. He climbs through the hills and recounts the intricate, familiar details of place names, smells, and natural life. He walks all day until he sees his father’s house reddening in dusk:
He is standing in the doorway
arm raised to shield his squint.
He knows I am coming.
But, as readers, we can’t help feeling that he will never come and that the father is still there squinting into the dusk. A very good poem.
The final poem, Lost at Sea, concerns a woman - her glance both to the future and to the past, which contains hope, grief, longing, all in one simple image:
She pauses to watch her cradled baby
reach for racing clouds
that now and then open
for shafts of sun to search the waves.
The Boy who Came Ashore was published in 2006 by Glasgow-based Dreadful Night Press and can be purchased online (credit card or PayPal) at the Scottish Pamphlet Poetry site for £5.50.