beside the seaside

Sep 13, 2020 poetry appreciation

I am lucky enough to be retreating from Real Life for a while: a week (ish) away near the Galloway coast in a house where there’s no internet and only a very feeble, intermittent phone signal. So this column will be on holiday along with me, though back as usual in a fortnight’s time. To give you a virtual visit to the sort of place I’ll be, and a vision of the sorts of creatures I hope to be gazing upon, here’s the vivid and wonderful ‘Rhu Mor‘ by Norma MacCaig. (Unfortunately I can’t find this anywhere on the internet with the poet’s own layout on the page, so we’ll have to make do with this. As consolation, you can hear MacCaig himself reading it here.)

The poet takes us with him through the experience of sitting on the beach gazing, and settling, and eventually coming to experience the ‘descending grace’. We start, as the beach visitor often starts, with the close observation and registration of the details of things: how the gannets ‘fall like the heads of tridents’; the quality of the water; the wave-lifted driftwood, the seal flopping and writhing its way down the beach (what a description, ‘struggling in the straightjacket of its own skin’!). The speaker’s gaze comes closer, noticing the details of the wind-carved dunes where he sits, the water on the marram grass, the play of light. Then, as a gift of this presence, this attentiveness (which would no doubt today be called mindfulness) bears fruit in the speaker’s experience of ‘grace’—a state we cannot create for ourselves but only put ourselves in the way of receiving by stopping to stand (or sit) and stare.

I particularly appreciate the way the description of the experience of grace in stanza three is described as matter-of-factly, and as well-observedly (I’m tired; you know what I mean!), as the descriptions of the physical world around the speaker. It takes for granted that this access to a different dimension, and the gift it brings of making ‘that naked thing, being,/ a thing to understand’, is as much a part of reality as the sea, the birds, the seal, the sand, ‘the simple elements’ of the final stanza. I find ‘Rhu Mor’ a wonderful evocation of what those of us who “need” to be outside actually find when we take ourselves out of the world of telegrams and anger (or at least a bit further away from it) and into nature. I’m very much hoping for some Rhu Mor moments over the next week or so. And, in the way of all happily-departing holidaymakers, I wish you, too, your own moments when ‘that naked thing’ can be not just borne, but understood.

See you in a couple of weeks.

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