Poems by Karen McCarthy Woolf
To Dover from Calais – (A landay)
After midnight we drive through Sangatte
on the outskirts, where teenagers rush to the tunnel
In the big-cat gleam of our headlamps
the boys pause for a heartbeat---disappear in a flash
If you’re not really a Syrian
is it safer in the Congo, or Afghanistan?
While we all fiddle with our smartphones
sniffer dogs inhale the articulated lorry
Two ferrymen tell me how they feel
okay because they pull up the bridge and sail away
It’s only a joke if it’s funny
so I don’t laugh at ‘they weren’t exactly invited.’
Tell me, if Great Britain is so full
why is this middle-of-the-night-crossing so empty?
The truth is I’ve a long history of dead birds
and there’s been no cadavers since
those first months mourning my baby son, so
when I find her, at the top of some steps
on a ledge leading to a beach, full of tourists
sheltering from the heat under striped ombrelloni,
I do what I always do and lean in to take a picture.
I have no idea this fallen star is Halcyon,
immortal daughter of Aeolus, keeper of the winds
and namesake of the Islands shimmering
on the horizon---A turquoise streak
over mottled green suggests a juvenile. I wonder
why she’s here, on a beach, rather than by the river.
Empty eye sockets contradict an immaculate plumage:
she’s out of place. At least that’s what I think.
In truth this is Halcyon’s homeland, her story ends
and begins on this iridescent strip
of waves that become her widow’s pyre and grave.
The Gods were kinder than expected and resurrect
Ceyx and his grief-struck wife,
turn them into birds (kingfishers to be exact)
but as is the way with these things, there’s a catch.
Halcyon must lay her eggs in winter
and when she returns to nest at the water’s edge
the chicks are always swept offshore.
Naturally, her sorrow is immense
and she wails and begs until Aeolus is permitted
to hold the winds at bay over the winter solstice,
so the storms are calmed and the fledglings prevail.
Now, even in summer, the crowded boats capsize
and there are no patriarchs with open arms
who protect the young and control weather.
There are no Halcyon Days; the sea itself is dying.
About the poet
Born in London to English and Jamaican parents, Karen McCarthy Woolf holds a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Prize and an AHRC doctoral scholarship at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she is exploring ecological poetry, the city and loss. Her collection An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet, 2014) commemorates a baby son who died in childbirth and was a Forward Prize Best First Collection nomination and a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. It was selected by Kate Kellaway as the Guardian/Observer Book of the Month and it was described as a ‘beautiful, painful, pitch-perfect debut’. Karen’s poems are translated into Spanish and most recently Swedish, as part of the European poetry initiative Versopolis. Her work as has also been dropped by helicopter over the Houses of Parliament by the Chilean collective Casagrande. Karen has a longstanding interest in cross-arts practice: she has collaborated with artists, filmmakers, musicians and choreographers, presented her work as installation and performed in the UK, US and Europe. She has read at a wide variety of national and international venues and festivals, including Cheltenham, Aldeburgh, Ledbury, the Royal Festival Hall, Barbican Centre, V&A, Tate Modern and Science Museum in the UK, as well as in the US, Singapore, Sweden and the Caribbean. Karen is also a fellow of The Complete Works — a nationwide professional development programme committed to creating more cultural diversity in poetry publishing and is the editor of the associated anthology Ten: The New Wave published by Bloodaxe Books. Karen was recently the poet-in-residence at the National Maritime Museum, responding to the museum’s exhibition on international migration. For more: mccarthywoolf.com