Southern Shores: art and ekphrastic poems

After having officially retired as Hampshire Poet 2016 for most of last year, I was offered an unexpected final commission in November. Would I like to look at some paintings of coastal scenes and see if any poems came to mind?

Wow. I would. I love the sea. I’m not sure if it’s because I grew up on a lot of folk music, where sad people are usually either missing their lovers who have gone to the sea/war/possibly both, or have drowned, or are wishing they were sailing away from inconstant lovers/war/death/cruel mothers. It was a complicated adolescence, and left me with a chunk of anachronistic vocabulary that doesn’t get out much.

A few seconds after gazing at some of these paintings (all save one by men, but that one was possibly the most interesting), I slipped easily into the old words of those songs I love. They were contemporary pop music when a lot of these pictures were being painted. If I were the kind of person to fling the phrase cultural DNA into a conversation, now would be the time. When Angela Hicken of Hampshire Cultural Trust read the poems I came up with, she thought I had been immersing myself in stringent nautical research. Truth is, I carry these words with me all the time, like a trapped time-travel capsule, and they emerged of their own accord. (Yes, I used fain in one poem. I’m still not sorry.)

Reading these poems in isolation probably won’t make much sense: they are embedded in the picture they respond to. I even kept the same titles to tether them. I knew they were going to be shown together, with the art and poem interacting, and was excited to step into five different worlds and see what happened. I can’t defend the direction my disturbed imagination took after that.

The Southern Shores exhibition is at The Gallery in Gosport Discovery Centre from 13 January to 17 March 2018, showing marine-themed works from the Southampton City Art Gallery collection. Five pictures have one of my ekphrastic poems next to them. Do go along if you can.

Here are the five pictures I chose, together with my responses:

art - Hicks girl seated by shore

Girl Seated by Shore – George Elgar Hicks, 1878

No wind can fill the sail a lonely heart can rig.
No swell will loose a mooring roped to sunken dreams.
As salt preserves the pain inside a wound it cleans
a life may float on death: a ship adrift in fog.

While seasons turned she fixed herself on shore. Her hair
blew wild. It grew to meet the kelp-strewn rock and fused
her living frame to mineral. Her limbs first bruised
then slowed her sluggish blood to ice. She transformed there.

When winter gripped and stilled the land, the restless sea
reached up for her. She thrilled as brine swam in her veins
and rolled ecstatic to the surf, then heard the chimes
of old bells shipwrecked sailors hear before they’re free.

They called her on from fathoms down, to where her love
drowned twice to lure the one he could not bear to lose.


Douglas, Rose, active 1893-1898; Pulling Rowboat Ashore

Pulling Rowboat Ashore – Rose Douglas, C19th

Hauling their men in from another country
these women know they pull something foreign ashore.
Waves are no place for skirts
that wick a drowning faster than it takes to shout.
Once replanted solid, those salt-stained men
will ask for nothing, but fold away talk
in a quiet nod.

But here, with every inch of boat out of water
turning wood to lead,
where the sea clutches and sucks
to reclaim its own, they gladly strain
on a brine-soaked rope to deny the surf
this time.
It will take payment
in exchange for bounty
but not this time.

Borders have ever been lawless –
this is an elemental crossing
alive with mutability and cunning.
The line is treacherous.
They haul, calloused and raw,
and their men are home again.



The Wreckers – George Morland, 1791

Who’s to say when a captain knows?
When the lamp is snuffed? When the cove
enfolds his ship, or at the first crack in a hull?
Useless, then, to fight wind and wave.

There is but one way and it will end
under that dark broiling –
pray God for a sharp snap on a rock
not rolling and choking and breaking until a hand

holds your limp rag body under a final time.
Life is witness and witness is death
and the owlers will choose:
no time for doubt or God,

they must haul before excisemen’s muskets
bristle over the cliffs
and spit fireflies into the night.
Load the crop, boys.

Whip white flecks in your horse’s back
for you must stow this and melt away
into dark places before the storm
breaks the last of the boat for dawn to find.

owlers – wool smugglers
crop – smuggled cargo


Priestman, Bertram, 1868-1951; Unseaworthy

Unseaworthy – Bertram Priestman

She settles her keel in mud at low tide
like an old sailor into an armchair
stretching his boots to the fire
to tell stories through pipesmoke.

Twice a day she feels the salt call – once
she would have strained her moorings
to be out there again
leaning on a westerly
with the last smudge of land astern
and a whole world ahead:
the whale-road of our ancestors.

Her fluid dreams cloud and thicken;
taut rigging weathers slack
as silt smokes around her rudder
luring it into unhurried entropy.
She knows what will come: rot fingers her hull
prising her boards apart.

She itches with small creatures and fungi,
careful to list away from children
who play when the sun warps her deck
and swallows chase sandflies through her ropes.
She hears small human escape plans,
to cross oceans and fight wild tentacled monsters
that ooze from their nightmares.

Another tide makes her tiller flinch.
Slack water turns to flood –
she waits for news to stream to her
from the open horizon.


art - Jones View of Portsmouth

View of Portsmouth from Portsdown Hill – Thomas Jones

Give me wings or a ship:
I would fain leave these clod boots
on shore and fly to where sky and sea
no longer care
for our fussy definition,
but roll over the southern curve
with the ease of old time.

I stretch my thin arms
like winter twigs
and wish for billowing canvas
or flight feathers braced for incline and bank,
feel envy course through me –
too dense, too heavy, too solid –
as spiderlings throw silk to heaven
and ride the wind to a new tomorrow.

What use is static dependability
to an unquiet ocean?
I would break my bonds in a moment
and fly:
an arrow from land’s bow
aquiver to learn what is beyond
my eye’s compass.