Water sliding by scales and gunwales,
the surge of its smooth body pressing
firm and steady, its tongue purling
along edges and the sidling sides come
perfectly against it. Nosing bows
and questing noses wandering, returning,
glancing, pausing, held in the fetch
of the river’s narrative. Readers,
every one, of the flood-text, following
the Esk by the tang of the air or taste
of fresh water, gauging eddy and pool,
bank and bywater for their way to
stream-story’s end. Ending in what?
Birth and death of course, knowledge
tingeing the ebb of ecstacy. Milt
in the shallows. Bloodshed and fire
marauding the lonely farms.
And the river like a story run.
But images glow when stories fade,
as this one glows of the salmon’s
exploding leap into light and air,
extraordinary penetration of an alien element
triggered by something in the scheme
of things; an image never known along
all the Vikings’ whaleroad – to be glimpsed
and gawped at, disputed and not to be believed.
No blood-stain at tide-mark,
no keel-print pressed in the sand
the screaming of the stricken stifled
or staunched with the wounds
long since sea-carving Norsemen
set bright edge to bone.
Folk and field proved softer, huger:
flesh and farm absorbed the brutal brunt
taming the swing of arms into
the wield of the land and the old courses.
Even their tongue tamed:
Hvitaby purled on the tide of speech
till the sharp tooth’s edge
was whispered smooth.
Other places, their word-grit endures,
mansliht, hreaflac stalking still,
the ding of iron, thunk of blade cleaving:
Ugthorpe Stainsacre Blea Wyke Steel.