After several weeks of quiet, Robertson’s poem is just the place for the PACK to rile again. I hope everyone had a happy round of holidays.
I find this piece a moving (‘enchanting’ seems too buoyant an adjective) meditation on the nature of itinerancy, and, perhaps following, a poem couched in the conflict of weight, of sylph and earth. Robertson’s first two couplets are consonance-heavy (‘foam-flecked’ and ‘blue banners’ and ‘whipping west’), and my association of that stylistic choice with fourteenth century conventions (in, say, “Piers Plowman”), lends the piece an historical weight; to my taste, this is complimented by the mysterious facelessness of the fishermen, who aspire to be ‘rumor[s],’ ‘smoke-walkers.’ For all their association with the sea and with the insubstantial, the fishermen are heavy here, locked in land. This elemental conflict is marked pointedly in the eighth stanza, where ‘Their houses, heeled over in the sand [. . .] become ‘ruins,’ ‘cairn for kites’: the land-bound leg kicks up in ‘heeling,’ and the cairn is counterpoint to kite in three ways: as flying toy; as memory of spinnaker; as the drifting bird of prey, herself half-pilgrim on any ground.
Robertson’s use of cretic feet like ‘Callanish’ and ‘Dunnottar’ is especially poignant to this elemental end: the fishermen arrive from the sea fresh with puissance, live in abeyance on land, and then return to the ocean with renewed verve; the world of “The Fishermen’s Farewell,” then, occupies the breath between stresses. ‘[D]own by the quay/past empty pots, unmended nets, and boats[,]‘ the fishermen find themselves in a different drink, but wager on that partial conduit to sea nonetheless. I wonder: have seals as symbols ever seemed as grave and wise as this?