1. Longship

A lean predatory
thing of beauty

oak-hulled, pine-masted
with a keen nose for war.

In the mud of Roskilde harbour
iron spirals stud her dragon’s head

seven rows of rivets
mark vanished planks

where the wood was hewn thin
oars looped to rowlocks.

Shipwrights trimmed every excess from the rib frames
perfectly mated anger and beauty.

A shallow draft meant she could
run up the skinniest inlet

and pounce
flat with the waterline.

Before shrill jeremiads have their say
look in awe at this perfect art.

2. St Edmund

In the eastern parishes
legend outweighs fact;

Hoxne monument
has spawned a martyr’s cult.

Only the manner of his death is disputed.

Was he beheaded
dumped to corrupt dishonourably

or blood-eagled for Odin,
ribs cut from his back,
lungs removed and draped over his shoulders?

On the nave’s north wall
wax-darkened paintings
depict his killing –

the heavy-headed figures of
transept carvings and screen panels
smell of martyrdom. They promise the dead

shall speak. But I see

a Saxon king. A place of execution.
The xenophobic murder.

3. Farne

Our island shaped like a
rusty axe-head pointing east out to sea

louder than gale-bowed hawthorn
or the song of seals.  Waves make liturgy

on the washed sand,
feathery powder snow
over my footprints. I stare out --

sea crisps vividly blue. The wreck’s
rotting timbers are
sandfull to the gunwhales.
Like a penitent sea-animal.

I came here
as a child to impress our Father
and like a child I doodle gargoyles

and snigger. When the causeway
floods, this is a frontier closed

among the insouciant chatter of reeds
the talk with angels

I knelt on the sand
hungry for miracles.

4. Iona

Cloud. Seamless tunic over
the hills of Mull

it seems for all eternity.

Above rock eyries and
otter printed shore

a ringed Celtic cross
stood in the empty socket stone

funerary art to saints
who came in currachs

their graveslabs carved with
serpent and boss.

At the landing places voices
yelled over the sound

and I can understand how
the aesthetic hardness
pleased them

but would I have the faith
to wade up to my armpits in seawater,
offer a benediction?

5. Rathlin

Boomerang-shaped rock a child
tossed in the sea and forgot

seasick currach-pull
across the sound

fit only for
aesthetes, hard station island
where saints found a cold heaven.

As dusk sculpts her, smooth pebble you could
skim to the mull of another country

kelp describes a shore mosaic
for birds to pick over.

And do only
I hear famine in the swell’s plainchant

watching her in
winter’s ineluctable blue or vestments
after an Easter snowfall

singing high mass for the waves
where no parishioners shall come?

6. Drumlin Country

Don’t look for big vistas in
drumlin country, for such earth’s the colour of
a peat brick that won’t burn

impressing its geography on the mind
like turf mounds, abandoned homes and
obstinately cloud-cowled hills.

When fogs drift over the peat
the fattest eels birth
in expanses of bog
dank as a leech’s foot.

Dawn is murky as poteen
or can cut, hoarfrost-sharp
like ogham script on standing stones.

It tastes of the sea
a handspan over the Rosses
but far enough to be infinity

where sun bloodies the foreland
and the isles
a holy pilgrimage away

grow tar-black as upended currachs
sinking out of vision
and I feel at home.

Robert James Berry

If you've any comments on these poems, Robert James Berry would be pleased to hear from you.