Martin Newell 2003

Shipshape 2

Out from Colchester, southwest
The countryside was unimpressed
When city gossip reached its ears
It stayed unchanged and slept for years
In weatherboarded modest gown
Where hamlet turned to tiny town
And elm-lined lanes lay in between
And railway trains had never been.
For instance, why should Totham care
What London said or did down there?
The crop came in, the barn was full
The haywain high, a horse to pull
The cart to town and fetch it back
Saw parson, stopped along the track
Who gazed across the great flat fields
To calculate his master’s yields
In buried, married, newly-born
His sea, the waving Essex corn.

And here the artist halts the car
At Scripps Farm, Totham where we are
The farmyard in a sharp spring sun
With restoration work begun
Inside its barn, upon a boat —
It strikes a slight incongruous note
For writer, notebook in his hand
This ship, a good three miles inland.
Now up the ladder, past the strakes
Been newly-spiked, the poet takes
A walk inside the wooden whale
And wonders such a beast could sail
Its oaken ribs, gargantuan beams
The red-lead decks and tarry seams
Rebuilt by skinny Essex boys
Who stood beside it, look like toys
And these are shipwrights?
Yes it’s true The artist, once a shipwright too
Has done this work and understands
The alchemy in human hands

Much later, back in Wivenhoe
Familiar litanies will go:
“The sum of this all poetry lark
Is I’ve become an invoice clerk
And secretary to myself
You see the files upon my shelf?
Well everything I write or sell
Will make the paper mountain swell.”
The writer jokes. The artist looks,
Puts down another pile of books
— Material the poet will need
And which he’ll be required to read
To learn about the shipwright’s art
Before the work can even start
“Bohemian and louche enough
We were when we began this stuff
Till it became obsessional.
And here we are — professional.”

Art and work in any case
The two words do not interface
At least not to a world out there
Which sees the writer’s vacant stare
The artist blankly sipping tea
And says: “That’s work? It’s not to me.”
Not knowing silent hours alone
Fragmented only by the phone
Or rarer, should a colleague call
— Still worse, not broken up at all
Since all the tumult’s locked inside
While artist and the world collide

But put aside these mundane things
Commissions come, the phone still rings
And now we’ve done the field trip
We ought to build a sailing ship
A ship built out of paper, ink
Caulked well with facts which cannot sink
The artist’s line, the writer’s rhyme
To crystallise its shape in time
And how will we describe this art?
Shipshape. That would be a start.

In north-east Essex, when it’s spring
The schedule doesn’t mean a thing
At least not to the stubborn wind
By which the season’s underpinned
The sun is strong, the blackthorn snows
The dirty evening darkness goes
But still the east wind slices throats
Mocking scarves and cutting coats
Pinching, clenching, killjoy crone
Tacking inland up the Colne
Flinging insults at the sun
And ruining the tourists’ fun
She comes to visit, Easter Day
And often lingers all of May

But stuff like this breeds stubborn sons
Across the marsh the sound of guns
At practice as the halliards rattle,
Mingles with the mooing cattle
Turned out on the slopes for spring.
Now the larks and thrushes sing
Then the gulls and waders call
Poet and artist know them all
Noting them while working on
To see another winter’s gone.

In summer heat, the window up
The writer downs his coffee cup
And gaoled in concentration deep
Rebels against the urge to sleep
The artist meanwhile, streets away
Works knife-on-lino half the day
Then runs off prints on great machines
Or fills his time by other means
Till piece-by-piece the ship takes form
The poet in his paper storm
Arrives by bike with verse in tracts
The artist bales him out with facts
His boat repaired, he turns to go
Announcing that he’ll learn to row.

Good as his word, the poet returns
With bulletins on what he learns:
The river — all these years on land
The half was all he’d understand
By only seeing it from the side
Without he’d rowed against its tide
His eyes half-closed towards the shore
Imagining what Saxons saw
The forest slopes, the shifting sky
The half-sunk driftwood floating by
And people on the village quay
Imprisoned almost -unlike he
Who finds the overview he needs:
Civilisation, seen through reeds.

Then summer goes. In twos and threes
The spinners hanging in the trees
Like ‘copter blades, are burnished brown
And ripened, they come spinning down
Across the river, where they float
In early autumn when the boat
The artist and the writer made
Is fitted out with light and shade
Etched with care by pen or knife
Which brought the early drafts to life
And in the shed, the slouching sun
Of late September days has done
He lingers idly on the book
And lights the linocuts to look
Before he fires the afternoon
Leaving the cleaning to the moon.
And artist? Writer? Where are they?
Finished — for at least today.
The prints being dry, the verses penned,
Shipshape. That would be an end.

Shipshape 2

Martin Newell 2003