The Cormorant Dress

I watch him for a long time,
His outstretched wings straining away from his torso,
Creating a black feathered axe.
I have watched him dive
So precise in his assault of fish
Then patient
As he waits for his wings to dry,
Blood sloppy around his beak,
Fish-flesh pink around his jowls.
He dives again
I paint his rock with glue,
Sun bakes it dry around his webbed feet,
His beak and jowls strain upwards
As his wings thrash.
I shoot him with an arrow
His shrieking peaks
Then recedes.

Sea is still, waves limp to shore.
The island too feels flat
Though stepped banks of shale rise
And everywhere trees of many types spring up.
There is coolness under their canopy,
Where you can smell streams
And hear wild dogs bawl.
It all may as well be scrub or sand,
the sea too could be baked to salt dunes
For all that it has brought me.
Six times I have signalled passing ships,
My arms cormorant wide.
But as each came nearer I hid
And prayed they had never seen me.
For weeks afterwards
I reconstruct in paint what I’ve seen,
Use my cave-wall’s rocky inconsistencies
To recreate the lines of a man’s face or his whiskers.
Their painted eyes warm me,
I talk to them at night.

Did the sailors imagine me a ghost?
Me, the only body who breathes and speaks
On an island populated by ghosts?
It is on the days after rainstorms
That I most miss conversation
Another soul to say
‘Keep the meat up high- that at least we can do!’
I imagine, on these days,
The hundreds of other islands out beyond the horizon
And the people, sitting together fireside
Taking one another’s company for granted,
Blithe spirits who cannot imagine themselves cast out.
They live blindfolded, as I did.

I mark time on a fallen trunk-
First a line lightly scratched with a bone awl,
Then carved with a bone knife,
The tenth I rub with hot ash.
When I reach a thousand
I gather grasses from each corner of the island
Arrange them in leaf bowls
And wait for them to dry.
I hack the trunk apart and burn it,
The grasses provide smoke of different colours.

I lost years to sloppiness,
Now every task must be completed with precision,
Meals especially-
Pack each wild onion tight with herbs,
Pluck every bone from the rockfish,
Cut diagonal striations into the skin which
Allows the fat to crisp.

On the fifth day after they left me
I left my baby alone while I fetched firewood.
I returned and the cave floor was
Painted in splatters and streaks with his blood
And he was gone.
I never found another trace of him.
In revenge I killed five litters of wild dogs,
Slit each dog’s throat
And combined their tiny pelts into five coats.
I wish that I had never killed them-
It brought me no peace.
I burnt those coats years ago from shame.

With even frequency whales wash up on the beach,
I pull the sinews from their monstrous corpses.
Pulling sinew through birdskin as thread
I stitch the cormorants together as a dress,
The black of the feathers so irredeemable
As to become in places blue.
I hope to finish it in the next thousand days
And wear it as I burn the fallen trunk
And watch the pretty island grasses
Escape the island as smoke.


Although it is November it is a warm night
Two men sit drinking on the shingle.
The shingle even in the dully lit city night
appears speckled, with stones of tan and white and grey and blue-grey
Some of the stones are small enough to be picked up in handfuls
Others, on their own, are large enough to break a window.
To the right are two piers
One illuminates the night with gaudy amusement.
The other, long since burnt out, looks from a distance
like the charred, skeletal
remains of an accidentally lit matchbox house.
The sea itself is an opaque purple-black
with a yellow-white foam hemming which repeats infinitely.
The smell of sea and salt is faint,
as if bordering with a city had tamed it.
The city sleeps behind the two men, who do not face it
If they wanted to reach it, they would have to climb beyond two breakwaters.
The lower breakwater is concrete
It waits low and staunch for the sea’s ambush
The other, much higher and made of brick,
is crowned with a metal barricade that has oxidized to sage green.
They are both lined with white, ornate lampposts
Each lamppost has a bolt running through it, just below the lamp.
They provide the only light for the beach.

Beyond the breakwaters and their lampposts lies the city proper
Off-white Victorian buildings line the sprawling seafront,
None of them are homes.
Beyond the seafront there are few reminders of the sea,
only the gull’s persistent cat-calls.