Then I wrote often to the sea,
to its sunk rope and its salt bed,
to the large weed mass lipping the bay.
The small glass bottles would be lined
along the bedroom floor – ship green
or church-glass clear – such envelopes
of sea-mail. Only on the day
of sending would a note be fed
into each swollen, brittle hull –
I had my phases: for so long
it was maps: maps of wader nests,
burrows and foxes’ dens, maps where
nothing was in its true position –
my landscape blooming from the surf.
Later, I’d write my crushes’ names
onto the paper, as a small gift.
The caps then tested and wax sealed.
None ever reached my dreamed America,
its milk-white shore, as most would sink
between the pier and the breakwater,
and I would find that I had written
about the grass to the drowned sand,
again; and to the sunken dark,
I had sent all the light I knew.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2013. 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 2013 was David Robinson.
For obvious reasons – the loneliness of the poet’s craft, the doubts about whether readers ever understand – the metaphor of the poet as someone sending out messages in bottles was probably common even before Sting wrote a world-famous song about it. But whereas that ended – remember? – with the insane optimism of 100 billion bottles from similarly lonely people washing up to reassure the singer, here there’s no such easy get-out. The last stanza is so hauntingly beautiful that it brilliantly undercuts the rest of the poem’s implied pessimism.
I came across a revelatory quote ‘the letter always arrives at its destination’ in an essay on ideology in Charlie Chaplin movies. What is important to note is that the letter does not necessarily arrive at its intended destination. For me, what this pointed towards was the potential in the falling-short; how misplacement or being ‘lost’ could actually create an opening for something else. By whatever quirk of the mind I immediately thought of that period of childhood I spent obsessed with throwing bottles out to sea – the act of writing towards something, but to no one in particular, was the perfect environment to practise the lie or, more dangerously, to try tell something of the truth.