Pale cream cover with a block painting in the centre of boatsLoop, Pauline Yarwood

Wayleave Press, 2021   £5.00

Lost at sea

Pauline Yarwood’s poem ‘At Sea’ conjures absolute fear with her incredible depiction of a ship in turmoil. The poem stood out as the highlight, for me, in her second pamphlet from Wayleave, Loop.

In the first stanza, the juddering, breathy sparseness of language and sentence structure evokes panic:

Confusion, ropes tangled, sails in shreds.
No idea where to put what.

This section ends with ‘the boat spun / like a stricken clock’, emphasising the frenzied chaos of the scene.

The poet goes on to express the violence of the storm:

we were thrown, directionless,
on the cabin floor, scrambling to find
the right chart, all spilled into the blue-purple glaze
of petrol that had oozed from the engine.

This detail of the fuel leakage layers a mounting sense of threat, with the ship’s occupants desperate to survive, while their vital tools of navigation are ‘skittered and scudded’:

The cooker was thunderous on its gimbal,
the head gurgled with foul water

And things look set to get progressively worse:

just as we thought of grabbing the tiller,
manic in its swinging, it snapped from the rudder

But then the final stanza takes an unexpected turn, throwing this reader into a state of rich uncertainty:

as the wind
incomprehensibly calmed, the boat continued
to rise and dive, to buck and spin.
Hell-bent. The only way to explain our helplessness,
the permission we gave each other to be utterly afraid

Up until this final stanza, I thought I knew where I was — but, as the storm calms and the ship continues to be ravaged, this poem takes on new meaning. The phrase ‘Hell-bent’ implies, to me, the sailors’ fear is what keeps the ordeal alive despite the cessation of real danger. Is this, then, anxiety? A crisis in mental health, or perhaps societal attitudes, whipped into a ‘maelstrom’?

‘At Sea’ contains vivid imagery, depicting perfect chaos and such a deep and intriguing ending which invites many ways of reading.

Vic Pickup