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This poem is taken from PN Review 253, Volume 46 Number 5, May - June 2020.

Once More the Sea Phoebe Power
The beach is bipartite, in process, divided. Half is brown-grey sludge, a packed-in powder. We walk on its springy surface, which feels like earth. Several inches high, this caked-up layer slumps on the limestone rocks beneath. Its dust, over a century’s industry, clogs the cracks and hiding-places, pores, spaces between stones, till breathing is constricted.

The other half of the beach is loose. Our feet jangle pebbles in a clattering and jumble of many colours: red-speckled, praline, blue merle, yellow, a piece of inky coal. I pocket it. Water tumbles around all of them and the stones rattle freely, shifting from place to place a wrack of seaweed, fragments of shell, part of a crab, a fingerbone of wood.

Dissolving the soft clump stuck on this shore, the sea calmly erases what has gone on here. The job is only halfway done, half-started. Year on year and inch by inch, as the ocean inexorably shakes the dust free, the whiter stone finds itself again, ghostly and exposed.


In the beginning, there was the Earth, and it had been for four billion years.

At this time there was a forest. Drenched, and crackling with zigzag ferns and sunburst leaves. Metre-wide dragonflies ruled the air, while millipedes, several feet long, eased between mossy towers.  

Over millions and millions of years, the trees died and fell into the swamp. Instead of decomposing, they slipped deeper underground, piling up in layers of peat. As the material gradually sank further down, nearer to the furnace of Earth’s centre, heat and pressure combined in a marvellous trick. The plants were cooked, carbonised hard black.

The carbon inhaled repeatedly by unthinkable multitudes of generations of leaves and fronds, moss-tails, wasn’t breathed out by bacteria in the gradual way, so it stayed locked-in, frozen in time or set like a diamond, a dark eye flash, liable to explode.


But I see the sea once more, wrote the poet from his guest room, eyeing the grey January tides as they rubbed the limbs of Seaham, in 1815.

When I visit the town, I notice Byron’s Place, a harbour-facing retail complex with Betfred, Greggs and Wilko. In the paved zone outside stands a wooden sculpture of Byron and his Seaham wife, Annabella. Their torsos are hard and stretched-looking, legs stiffly raised, apparently dancing; carved eyes stare beyond each other. On the plinth, some choice quotations from B’s best-loved works: she walks in beauty… lines not meant for her.

Lizzie put Byron on her Tinder profile and got a message back which said I love the burger chain too! There isn’t one in Seaham, just a clean-eating café with vegan options, recently opened. Lizzie studied Maths; so did Annabella.

‘Never liked a prude – dowdy – knows Statistics! – bad figure – long & a high dress – still, she gains by inspection – the lower part of her face is bad – knows Greek & Latin.’ Her calmness, self-command, while he bullied her made him prickle, but

‘ha! She is like a child, quite caressable, I had her on the sofa. One animal is as good as another, provided she is young. Took her out of Seaham (shudder) to Augusta’s, proved I could do without her. Still, I worked them both well, and left her for Geneva.’


Leslie shows me her driftwood sculptures. Cupboards of them, under the bed and piled up in the garage. Village scenes and abstract arrangements; model boats with sails; a little bird. She uses the sea-shaped contours as she finds them, emphasising with a rusty lock nailed in, for example, or a stretch of net or wire. On the workbench is a jar of sea glass like blue opals, ready to fill in skies or windows, dot a creature’s eye. I’m not allowed to collect any more! she says, not till I’ve got through this – heaps of scavenged pieces stowed in sacks, ready to be worked. Haven’t got space for it all. But I can’t stop!


Bob and Michael let me share their Thursday walk. The meadow’s full of purple clover

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