The buyers peer with hands in pockets,
black against the break of day,
and rienge their wits for jests to cheapen
our siller won from waters grey.
Down from the quay they climb to finger
what our brown nets swept away,
the hard-won harvest we have wrestled
from sea and night, from wind and spray.
What do they know, or any others,
of how the midnight wind commands,
and herds the glimmering crests to leeward
to break in ranks on hidden strands,
or how dawn shows the torn horizon
to staring eyes or frozen hands?
Only the night sea, wudd with winter,
can give them the mind that understands.
We weather foreland after foreland,
and string the bow of every bight,
where lamps in homes by windless harbours
shine warm and yellow through the night.
We face, unshielded, wind and water,
and black to leeward as we fight
we glimpse the crouching, thundering forelands
that bare their fangs there, foaming white.
Hour and hour the hammering motor
echoes through the hold below;
hour and hour the restless forefoot
soars, then belts the black to snow;
the dark sea, wounded, phosphorescent,
lashes, with icy fire aglow,
the eyes that read it, watching forward
the sliding waters as we go.
Our wives at home are waking with us.
Listening to the gale they lie.
We listen to its high crests hissing,
and mark the neighbour’s light outbye,
red now, green now, lifting, sinking,
while, unquiet, our steerman’s eye
traces the stays to where the masthead
staggers its arc across the sky.
And lights on one bright star beyond it,
above a cloud rim winking plain
like a beacon on a rampart,
and of a sudden sees it wane.
Down the wind a grey wall marches,
towering; across us leap again
the streaming spindrift and the fury,
the squall, the blindness and the rain.
And if Fortune chances on us
in the dark, and swings our keel
into the airt where shoals are swimming,
we mark them, shoot and round them wheel.
Then a foot for purchase on the gunnel,
numb hands that have lost their feel,
the ebb tide straining, the steep seas snatching
a backdrop like a rod of steel.
The buyers outlined on the quayside
ganting and peering in a line,
the half-awakened early risers
that wonder if the night was fine,
though they can look at dark seaward,
and see far out our torches shine,
what can they know of our dim battles
round Pladda, Arran and Loch Fyne?
Liz MacNab (one of only 2 principal English teachers at Tarbert Academy since the end of WW2) chose 'At the Quayside'.
"Although the poem was written with the 1930s in mind it’s still relevant today and you could see the same scene on the quayside in Tarbert now. "