Gulls in November: 3rd place in PPS McKenzie Trophy

On February 19th my poem ‘Gulls in November’ came 3rd in Preston Poets’ Society’s competition for the McKenzie Trophy (you can read the other entries in the latest newsletter here). It is based on my ongoing fascination with the gulls who are a constant presence over the Ribble and at Riversway Dockland; great black-backed gulls with huge stomps of wings and commanding barks, black-headed gulls pealing across the skyline, gathering, watching, in knowing rows. Something in their voices calls to me from a far-off place. They tell me stories. This poem was one of them.

Gulls in November

bark at the sun that will not thaw
in spite of their promises to pull the boats
on braided ropes of finest cotton from the dockyard.

Where grey November’s ocean leaves
the coast to roar over the world’s edge,
what does that cold sun want?

A memorial of ships on the horizon?
A conversation with the captain who remembers
their first meeting on starvation’s salty brink?

Do the gulls woo that sun with kisses
because it was the one they met each dawn
with a prow slicing through sunlit water

and figurehead bold and bare breasted?
Because its blinding point (from which
they returned hungry and dry lipped,

longing to speak but unable to decipher
the crumbs) backlit their straining cargoes
with mythic significance against an oranging sea?

It is quiet at the dockyard now except for gulls
who share their apostasies with seafarers,
telling of a November day at high tide

when strong beaks remember intricate knots,
the boats are released, they pull them back
to their winter sun and there is silence.

Gulls, Riversway DocklandSnowdrops, Gulls and Docks 007 - Copy

Snowdrops, Gulls and Docks 014 - CopySnowdrops, Gulls and Docks 032 - Copy


5 thoughts on “Gulls in November: 3rd place in PPS McKenzie Trophy

  1. This is tangily evocative. ‘Strong beaks remembering intricate knots’ made me wonder whether you’ve come across any specific soul bird lore involving your local sea-birds?.

    1. Hi Brian, frustratingly considering I rarely go for a walk here or even look out of my window without seeing a gull, I haven’t come across any local soul-bird gull lore. When I’ve looked up gull lore there doesn’t seem to much in British tradition, aside for St Kenneth being raised by gulls and St. Bartholomew befriending them. Admittedly I’ve not looked much into other world traditions.

      But it’s my intuition that gulls inhabit a liminal place between sky, land and water, river and sea… and are much better at moving between worlds and telling stories. (To be honest I think it’s only humans who have truly lost those capacities).

      I also had a strange dream after seeing the Riversway gulls adrift in a flock just floating, nestling on air currents the west wind channelled into the dock. All staring out west beyond the horizon. That night I saw them again in a dream as floating globular white shapes with strange dark eyes and no wings just elbows then a voice spoke in my mind ‘the hounds of Annwn are here’. Then I awoke with that knowing.

      This seemed to support my intuitions about gulls, like the hounds of Annwn, being bearers of souls and perhaps being souls themselves. Whether there’s an equivalence as with geese and swans I don’t know. I think such insights go beyond yes or no answers…

      1. I would think they’d be included in the general tradition regarding sea-birds as the spirits of drowned sailors. Glynn Anderson is definite about Irish fishermen believing this, and Mark Cocker refers to the idea of gulls as wandering spirits as commonplace (he gives a couple of vivid stories, but I can’t find them at the moment), says the Herring Gull’s latin name ‘argentatus’ means ‘ornamented with silver’, and that in sub-zero conditions their whiteness can outshine snow. Thoreau described them as ‘candles in the night’.

        Mark Cocker also quotes a 14th century love poem by Dafydd ap Gwilym, ‘Yr Wylan /The Seagull’ – “Fine gull on a warm tide flow, / Colour of snow or pale moon, / Flawless is your beauty / Sun-shard, sea-gauntlet, Weightless on the wave-flood, Swift proud fishfeeder …. ” Not a soul bird poem, but lovely.

  2. Thanks for the links. I do like ‘candles in the night’ and ‘Weightless on the wave-flood’ in relation to the way they just seem to float on wind or water… I’ve heard of gulls being the spirits of drowned sailors in Cornish tradition too.

    And of course, there are lots of awesome poems. They appear in John Masefield’s ‘Sea Fever’
    And there’s ‘The Seagull’ by Stanley Moss, which contains the lines ‘I knew a bird singing in the sun / was the same as a dog barking in the dark’, which bears some relation to my dream and my poem’s opening line!

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