Lit by Fire

When the parakeets sing, I listen.
They parlay a riotous sound, like children
braving the boundless waves
as loud as conch and flute and drum
from Norse and Viking men and others since
who face this surging sea for safety, or possession,
or to simply roam all shores and oceans;
what restless souls you humans be!
They are the sound, I am the light.

Whoever lit a beacon first did so in my name
and here I stand: this clifftop mine
manned or not, it is I who shine.

There are cabbages now, around my feet
as I look out over Joss Bay, where surfers ride
and shipwrecks sleep.
There are horses too, and sometimes sheep,
golfers swing, and dogs race up the steep concrete
to furrow of earth and chalk, complete
with the memory of plough and timber,
lath and plaster, the tower built, the fire lit
the wind’s teeth, the sea’s bite
gnashing on a body of souls.

Then, brick, stone, flint, coal. Rebuilding the bones
of the I that I am, trusted with the safety of every fleet
from London to Atlantic shores
oak-bottomed buttressed galleons
Indiamen, cavalry, sailor and fisherman
Princesses, Kings, Orangemen, Slaves
all watching for my guiding light
through savage rocks and treacherous Goodwins
waiting still for vessels now within my keep
tankers, pleasure boats, ferries
sailing past that other farm where soldiers
clad in sails of white and wings of steel
are armoured to the Channel’s floor
harnessing the wind.

Between us, urgent messages
run with the rhythm of thundering hooves
over oystered bones and rusted gold;
ghosts rush up my spiral stairs
their bodies damp and cold –
The Albion 1849. The Northern Belle, and Victory, 1857.
The Herald of Free Enterprise, 1987 …

Now golf balls spin and babies grin
tractors chew the Norsemen’s lute
a feather from a black-backed gull
dances in the aerial light
and small laughs break from the convent girls
in their walk down to the shore.
I settle them all in my crown of light
to burn like stars and blaze their right to life
and journeys free and wild for all eternity. And more.


Listen to the BBC broadcast of this poem here

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