The Mermaid and the Sailors

The Mermaid and the Sailors
I seem to draw them to me.
They come swirling towards me
like tugboats
in the dusk – every tread unsteady.
They set their course
across the bar-room floor.

Some have life stories they need
to share. One recalled a fatal night
in the Navy: falling off the back
of a warship headed for Shanghai.
He said he stood for three days
on a reef, and prayed – and afterwards,
he clung to me
like a drowning man.

Often they're older, and the more
drunk they get, the taller
their tales. I've been told
of ten-year sentences
in Brazilian jails – of smuggling
and supplying – and so many times,
of the hundreds of starry rivets
soldered by scarred hands
into Her Majesty's hulls.

They're hooked by my red hair,
swarming like fish
to a bright fly. Half-scared,
they slide over with a Scotch
and a story, maybe a sharp line
they thought up outside
in the streetlit cigarette haze.
They dive right in, as if through ice,
and they come up sparkling,
wheezing, waiting to be saved. 
Claire Askew

published in Poetry Scotland, Autumn 2008

Reproduced by permission of the author.
Claire Askew

Claire Askew is a poet and writer living in Edinburgh; her first collection, This changes things, was published by Bloodaxe in 2016.

Read more about this poet
About The Mermaid and the Sailors

This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2009. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2009 was Andrew Greig.

Editor's comment:
The conceit announced by the title is animated by an energy of sound and rhythmic patterning that stops it becoming wearisome. From the first I liked unexpected flourishes like 'hundreds of starry rivets/ soldered by scarred hands…'; only at third reading did I notice the off-rhymes that help bind the whole. It's got a voice that talks directly.

Author's note:
'The Mermaid and the Sailors' is the title poem from my first pamphlet collection, forthcoming in 2010 from Red Squirrel Press.