For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea
The Emma Press Anthology of the sea is a captivating, diverse and perceptive collection that expertly plumbs the complex depths of our relationships with the sea.
The anthology has been divided into four, roughly equal, sections (Ashore, Adrift, Awash, and Avast), the multi-layered titles of which cleverly function as subtle buoys outlining, without enclosing, thematic links between the gathered poems.
Books that cross our path without warning or recommendation bring with them a sense of mystery: like objects washed up on the beach, they may prove to be treasure-troves of delight; a fright of worthless wreckage; or simple flotsam and jetsam that gather worth over time. Beginning the anthology with our feet firmly on solid ground, it behoves us to consider both the intrinsic and relative values of each poem, and to decide for ourselves which poems we leave behind and which we slip into our pockets.
To get a fuller sense of a poem’s worth, it is important to consider not just how it has been written but when; while we may consider some poems timeless, they are never written out of time. ‘Distance’, by Yvonne Baker, is one such poem. Narrative in style, it articulates an inexplicable but tangible fear of the sea through the eyes of a child, for whom ‘the water stretches to a distance so far it makes you cry.’ The poet skilfully entwines the child’s initial despair with the parent’s later sadness when the sea, once declared to be ‘too big’, stands between them at the close of the poem. Given the significant and desperate migrations we have witnessed in the past decade, and particularly in the last eighteen months, the poem’s poignancy goes beyond its own story, speaking to our increasing awareness of the sea’s mass and menace.
‘To My Little Sister at the Shore’, by Jacqueline Saphra, is the singularly most powerful poem in the collection. Raw, intense, urgent, and overwhelming, it is a post-apocalyptic Corinthians; portraying love, not as sweet or innocent but primal, instinctual, and sublime. It also indirectly evokes the heart-rending images of innocent people desperately escaping, or succumbing to, the sea. The final poem in this section, the pause that follows is as welcome as it necessary to fully absorb the impact of Saphra’s words.
‘Adrift’ is a word for which context is particularly significant: at sea, being adrift is a matter of life and death; on land, it is often associated with freedom and opportunity. Diana Whitney explores the interplay of these concepts in her engaging ‘Outer Heron’ diptych. The first of these poems highlights the, ultimately absurd, notions of ownership and control we declare over nature; the second reveals just how little nature has to do to reassert its dominance, to remind the seasick traveller that everything changes, that nothing is ever truly in our control.
And yet, for the human spirit to endure, we must believe ourselves powerful when faced with the insurmountable. ‘Missing’ by Rebecca Goss is testimony to the strength of human conviction, to our belief in our ability to move mountains and part seas; to command and cajole nature with the force of our will. The poem adeptly captures the surreal nature of potential tragedy, the liminality of not knowing; who of us has not heard the midnight phone call or envisioned police officers at the door when a worried text goes unanswered, or the headlights refuse to light up the drive?
The sensations of being overwhelmed, overturned and overwrought are prevalent in Awash, and nowhere more light-heartedly than in ‘Play’ by Susan Richardson. The lines of the poem seem to fall over and under each other, creating the melodic swash and backwash of a sea that is never at rest, with the rhythm and harmony of waves perpetually changing places.
When writing poetry the contemporary wisdom is that you should not use the poem to simply explain something to a reader. [As Robert Frost said ‘No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.’] At the same time, the reader must be able to understand what you are saying; so the poem must balance somewhere between the obvious and the obscure. ‘52 hertz’ by Ellie Danak is a poem that gets this balance spot-on; the subject of the poem is gradually, and satisfyingly, understood through apt metaphors and well-placed, well-known facts.
‘Whalesong’ by Sophie S. Wright reads as a delightful combination of Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) riddle and epic. A strict pattern of I + verb is repeated twice in every line, and the poem’s vibrancy and energy surge to an ecstatic, stilling crescendo. If this poem were a type of music it would be house music; a film it would be Fantasia.
In our technologically-driven world, Avast is most commonly associated with cyber security; its primary function is to stop bad things happening. In nautical terms, ‘avast’ is an instruction to stop what you are doing.
The final section of this anthology, Avast is both a warning, and a command. There is a deeper sense of struggle and unease here, a greater sense of potential harm and damage, both being inflicted on, and by, the sea.
‘Halfway Home’, by Sara Nesbitt Gibbons, is a chilling reminder that the terrors of our past never leave us; that there is no such thing as a truly new beginning or fresh start. The sea, we are being told, is not a place to forget things; the sea does not forget.
Brian Grant’s poem ‘Now all of us are closer to the sea’ is the perfect conclusion to this collection. Its combination of rhythm and form, the ambiguity of the title, and the precise metaphors he employs come together to remind us that the sea has a life of its own, beyond our mere imaginings, and that it is a force to be reckoned with. The sea will neither be controlled nor contained; rather it is we who must learn to control ourselves, to reign in the assumed power we foolishly believe we have over the majesty of the sea. It bows to no one and no thing, and it will repay our abuses of nature tenfold. It is a clear message that this anthology sends; if we do not take care of the sea, it will take care of us. So read these poems, find yourself, and take care.