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This poem is taken from PN Review 257, Volume 47 Number 3, January - February 2021.

Icelandic Journal Miles Burrows
From Isafjord we came to Thingeyri,
The water grey as a knife,
Skuli so drunk he can’t walk. But I help him.
The landlady shows me the guest book,
The names of the English nineteen-year-olds.
I see the juvenile handwriting
‘God help us all! We need it!’ The sketch of the boat.
She heard their voices on the radio
As the ship was going down. It still upset her. Maybe
I would take this page and give it to their parents
Back in England. I didn’t look too keen
And she said it was all a long time ago
Their addresses may have changed
And anyway it was better to leave it now.

‘They used to call me mother,’
Touching me lightly as she puts out more food.
The grey hulk lies still in the grey water
Like something out of an old newsreel.
Skuli says when he went to Greenland
The drinking water froze solid in the tank.
He’s saving to go to University.
The snow falls dreamily in its paperweight.
The croak of a raven echoes across the fjord.
The water gleams black and purple as steel.
Icelandic humour is like the humour of Leeds.

On the snow-covered shore, a few sheep and hens.
A sheep is picking at a piece of seaweed.
No lifeboat, though there is a place for one on the deck.
On shore, a half-built swimming pool, and a graveyard.
A little grove of trees about the graves.
Christmas trees have difficulty surviving
And grow up with half a side missing.
The village is a church and two colossal oil drums.
A woman is hanging washing up to dry
With a couple of fish, in the sepia daylight.
At table, the mariners are dumb.
Pallid, silent, they have seen too much,
Done too much, had too much done to them.
Without energy to switch on the dance music
They have less to say than the ravens,
Snort at each other as if through gills
And are feasted by the grieving landlady.

They sit by the plastic roses
Speechless as if coming from a traffic accident.
She still hears the voices of the drowning
And touches us to make sure we are real.
Upstairs the bedroom rocks, buffeted by the wind.
A heavy picture of fruit, Christ knocking at the door.
In Isafjord they tried to get people to dream
With a lottery of tickets to the Canary Islands.
Bronzed people smiling in winter sunlight,
A woman sits in a huge straw sunhat
But tickets for the lottery are slow to sell.
Where the snow drops into a black sea
The ravens are large as dogs
And the sea blue-black as a six-day growth of beard.

November 4

Icicles hang from the cabin roof
Snow and ice cover the deck, the crane, the winches.
Matti the cook is like a Petersburg dandy
Twenty years old, with a velvet collar to his overcoat,
A blue shirt with scarlet buttons
And fashionable clogs with thick wooden soles.
He clops and slides these somehow over the icy deck.
Jan the skipper evades my questions
Like a surgeon dodging the patient’s curiosity.
The soft je sounds recall Russian or Polish,
Some small nouns resemble antique English
Like children hiding under heavy pieces of furniture.
The distortion of a into ao like the cawing of ravens.
Under tungsten lights the snow takes on a pained expression.

The guest house gurgles all night, and today
The sea has the blue-black sheen of a blunt iron axe.
On the sand, the skull of some unknown creature,
And a curly ram’s horn tinged with russet.
The blizzard has shut everyone in their houses
Except two boys on a tractor
And Tutti’s two daughters Helga and Bjarnfrida
Playing with an old bicycle wheel and a collection of ram’s horns.
Morning brings no daylight. The sun half rises ash pale
On the horizon to slump down in a haggard trance
Watched over by the punctual necromantic moon.
Four ravens fly over with soft treble voices,
They tumble over each other playfully
And produce dark wooden notes like a Chinese block.

The sea is looking furry, the sort of fur
That could be steel shavings. Black coffee and smorgasbord.
The gait of the skipper is stooped, suggesting a pit pony
That has been working too long.
Sometimes you can step on board the FRAMNES
At other times you have to pull the hawser
Inch by inch. You have to judge,
Can you pull the boat in more, or jump.
There’s a crucial point where you have to decide.
That varies with the ice, alcohol, the wind, and your mood.
Skuli’s drowned uncle appeared to him in a dream.
At the time he thought nothing of it.
Tutti says Oli is drunk ‘up to here’
And marks a level halfway up the chest.
Skuli says my job is not too difficult:
The trucks bring tubs of coiled and baited line.
Forty of these. The crane lifts them aboard.
I lug them to the port companionway
And wedge them tightly so they don’t fall over.
The tungsten lights are on and cardboard boxes
Litter the gangways. The plumber hasn’t finished
Fixing the lavatory. Half the bulbs are missing
In the cabins. The intercom’s not repaired.
The skipper says we may go out tonight.
On the landlady’s advice (‘don’t tell them I told you!’).
I ask about insurance. Matti wants
to cut my beard. He says it’s too fierce, too ‘grim’.
Under the full moon, the sea still as a cat.

A brilliant moon risen behind the mountains
In the north, holds them in crisp silhouette,
casts sparkling light onto the snowy mountains in the east.
Children are playing ‘statues’ on the icy street.
They greet me as I go by. ‘Hello Madam!’
(Because I have my duffel hood pulled up)
‘Going fishing without a boat? In your gumboots?’
I point to the moon. Tuli! They say Tuli!
I walk down to the quay, on edge.
A housewife watches from her window.
It’s a lovely night. I go to pee in the snow.
Venus shines in the east, very near and potent, flame coloured.
(I think it’s Venus. It could be Mars).

The ravens circling the television mast
On Sandafell bring to mind Italian paintings
Of Golgotha. But Italian paintings are hung
In an airconditioned gallery like a wine cellar
Or the shade of an Italian square. Where are the umber trees?
The windless sky? The stillness of the crows?
The gently receding distance? The towers? The terracotta roofs?
If I am to die let me be crucified
By an Italian painter on a summer evening
With a long vista of green and autumn leaves,
The sound of distant hammers, and a donkey, soldiers
In ornate helmets, a merchant passing in a rich vermilion cloak,
With a high collar, greyhounds, a distant hunting scene,
Pages in scarlet hats.

At Sea

We’re on board. Half midnight: Tutti wakes me.
The light hurts my eyes, in the lurching room
I lever myself out of the bunk and take a wide stance.
Skuli, opposite, sleeps fully dressed. Oli still asleep.
In the galley I get one bit of white bread, butter and marmalade.
And one cheese biscuit with ditto. I wait for Oli and Tutti.
The gloves are dry, both pairs. I put on one pair,
Two pairs and your hands can’t breathe in the diesel fumes.
I go aft where two tubs stand side by side.
Tutti has his long bamboo pole
With a light flashing at one end. This is a marker buoy.
Oli is ready with the anchor.
They do some complicated trick with the ropes
Like a child cutting his head off with a piece of string.
The rope seems to go through the side of the boat. I feel sick.

I drag the tubs. Each tub holds a line about fifty yards
Carrying baited hooks at yard intervals.
Each tub must be humped over the coaming from the hatch to the deck.
Skuli says to handle the tubs carefully
So I let him do most of the work. I just hump the tub
So far and let him do the rest.
Sometimes I hump it all the way. But not
If he tells me to handle them with more care.
When I hand him the tub I make a gesture
Of holding the handle as if helping him
To hoik it into place. But I don’t take any weight.
It’s an empty gesture, like pretending
To help a woman off with her coat.

Now Tutti comes and waters the tubs with a hose.
I resent this as it makes them heavier.
But I let him do it as if doing him a favour,
Though he is demonstrating that this is my job.
Skuli does the same and looks at me, and I let him.
Then he says, ‘You should water the tubs.’
I hang the hose so the water pours into the tubs.
But he comes again and shows me, watering them
As carefully as if they were tomatoes,
To thaw the ice, so that the baited line
Won’t stick to itself. I go on hefting the tubs
Over the six-inch coaming of the hatchway
And schlep them along a track to the point
Where Skuli shoves them to their final base
In pairs, where he secures the tail of one baited line
To the head of the other. I stand against a bulkhead
Clutching the rungs of a ladder. As the first line
Is thrown out it uncoils furiously
Like a rattlesnake as the boat increases speed
And bits of squid hurtle into the air and I lean back
To avoid the flying squid fragments.
I lean back into an opening
To relieve the nausea from diesel fumes.
When forty lines are out
They’ll make a half mile line close to the bottom.
We put the empty tubs into a new position
On the foredeck. The task begins again.
I comfort myself there are forty tubs.

In mathematics, forty can never exceed itself.
Eight groups of five or four of ten? It makes a difference
Because each journey dragging the tubs
Over the pitching icy foredeck is a struggle.
Try five stacks of eight. Tutti has piled them up ready.
He does a lot of my work quietly. He pulls a face and asks
If I have any dreams, I sleep so much. On the foredeck by the winch
There’s a kind of wheel which the tubs can be dragged past
If I can lift the wheel up without breaking it.
But the wheel is held down by a firm rubber strap.
I started banging the tubs about in a tantrum
And succeeded in breaking the iron bottom
Of one of the tubs. Skuli came
And asked if I was seasick and helped me.

First watch

Breakfast now. Coffee. Orangeade, two mugs
Rusk and butter. One biscuit. On watch at two a.m.
Alone on the bridge with the rocking stars
And smell of gloves drying. I watch the indicators.
Tutti comes and switches the light on and the stars off.
Stars on again.
A lovely night, sharp air, stars in unusual patterns
Their different intensities, some near,
Some further way, like birds calling in a wood.
I push the steering handle
To keep in view the intermittent light
Of the nearest marker buoy flashing and dipping.
Gulls floating up and down
Like motes in the eye of darkness.

Two a.m.

Waking the crew, I try to do it gently.
First the skipper Jon in his cabin
Abutting the bridge. I go in very gently
And tell him, six o’clock, so gently
That he’ll not wake up for another 20 minutes.
Then down the companion ladder to the other cabins
Waking Matti and Oli, then Skuli in his cabin.
Skuli wakes as if for an emergency.
Cornflakes three helpings, iced sour cream
With sugar. I go to the hatchway and sit on the coaming
Putting on the second pair of trousers.
The others are on the foredeck. The floodlight on.
Winch and rollers and slide already in place,
The day’s work is beginning.

Hauling in

‘You’re used to working with your soul. We work with our hands.’
The dead-breath: the sudden temperature-drop as when a ghost
Is said to appear. Maybe I slept
Or maybe this is sleep. Maybe this rusk is sleep
And I am eating sleep today in the form of rusks.
Sofa thyrnan. Sleepthorn. In the galley
The woman on the calendar is poised, chin in hand.
Above the chessboard, considering her move,
And her other hand resting on her thigh
Up which the long skirt has ridden.
As the boat tilts, she seems to swing her unclothed leg.
(The other calendar says ‘Fly United’,
Shows two ducks mating in mid-flight
The one in front looks back with its tongue hanging out.)

Hauling in (2)

As the lines are winched in
And each cod is pulled in on its hook
I slit its throat and sling the fish
Heavy as a young child down into the scarlet hold.
And if I pause to clap my twice gloved hands
Or sharpen the knife – am warned by a shout
Blothga fiskinn! by snub-nosed Skuli
Who unhooks them off the line
And flings them into the hold below the arc lamps.
The water runs like a trout stream over the deck
First one way then the other
And walls of water black and white
As it rises into the air, the vessel itself in mid-air for a moment
As if it was a racing dinghy, so that the boys
Keep their balance in the afterdeck
By hanging from bars in the roof
Then keep their spirits dancing on the foredeck
And yelling at the sea.

Sea-icicles stretch horizontal from the shrouds.
The hatches are stuck fast with sea-ice.
Ropes ice-bound, solid ice caking the mast, and hail and snow
Perpetually on the attack, with waves breaking over the bows,
And still the fish slip and slither into the hold,
The big hook through the eyes, or the baiting hook stuck fast
In the gaping throat, the scarlet gills
Open in a spasm under the tungsten floods.
We slit and hurl them into the hold for twelve hours.
The smell of cod is later in the clothes, in shirt cuffs,
Cod’s blood in the hair, in beard and eyes,
A smell like dogfish preserved in formalin, or like wet dog.
A scene too brightly lit to get into the brain.
A lesson repeated too clearly, too loud, too many times,

And Iceland itself, its glass cliffs appearing high in the air
Lit by a murky orange glow on the horizon
Like a municipal incinerator, and we still five hours away
Is too much for the exhausted brain to receive
Except faintly as a towel thrown into a boxer’s face.
Sleepless, inert, from twelve hours slitting cod
The one desire is sleep a thousand years
And then perhaps to wake and sleep again.
Chief memory and discomfort of those times
Was music blasting from the foremast, ear-splitting
Schubert quartets above the sea, bands, Spanish tangos
Accordion with shimmering violin accompaniment
Loud as a new mode of dental anaesthesia
That plays Niagara Falls into your ear.

Below deck, in the windowless cabin,
Issuing from the impossible-to-switch-off tannoy
Comes the sound of a seagull in an afternoon play.
We draw up the cod, self-dramatizing,
As ghosts repeat their crimes, as mad people
Are locked in repetition of their desires.
Back on shore, the guest house rises and falls,
Pitches and tosses like a sleigh
Being driven through the dark in War and Peace.
All the patient remembers is the anaesthetic.
As we go further North, the radio tunes
From the masthead get older
Like messages from very distant stars.
I’m jumping ship. Nobody knows, but I do.

I sing into the storm loudly
‘Irene goodnight! I’ll see you in my dreams!’
‘You feeling better now?’ Asks Skuli.
He is always thinking of me.
He lent me his gloves. The Icelanders treat me
As a not very intelligent dog
With a system of whistles and gestures.
People go to sea through lack of imagination.
‘A bit better now? You did not die this time?’
I went ashore. It looked very beautiful
With the white eider duck in the water
And gulls and ravens gather
Over the fish processing plant.
The sea must love us, to treat us like this.

It is ready to say goodbye at any time.
We made fast forward and aft.
I tried to undo the frozen knot
In the nylon rope or kick it flat enough
to go through the iron ring.
Skuli had to come and untie it for me.
He jumps down into the snow on the quay
And ties the other end of the fat nylon hawser
Onto a bollard. He winds the rope into the shape of a bowline
Then looks at it for a while.
He must be tired, exhausted.
He has forgotten how to finish the knot.

This poem is taken from PN Review 257, Volume 47 Number 3, January - February 2021.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this poem to
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