Setting Sail


Harbour Mole: by Willem van de Velde (The Younger) 1693

Long and busy weeks these days with little time for selfish distractions.  The blog is suffering.  My little Mind Ship is careened in the mud on some foggy leeward shore waiting for a good scrape and a change in the wind.

I love those old engraved prints of the days of sail, which show harbors bursting at the seams with ships and boats.  But like a Ryanair plane on the tarmac, a ship locked in harbor is a useless asset.  The trick is to flow in on the tide, unload your cargo, load a new one and be gone on the ebb.  Those harbors packed with ships are monuments to stranded productivity.  They need the right wind and tide to make sail.

Sail ships were doomed as soon as steam was viable.  Why wait a week for a favorable wind when a steam boat can cast off into a headwind?  There is no romance in business, only cold hard brass.  At first they used steam tugs to haul the great sail ships in and out of harbour to find a wind.  Then the complimentary technology became the competition.  Tugs were redesigned to operate as barges on canals and rivers, bigger versions became river and lake boats.  Ultimately the noisy, smelly, dirty vessels even replaced the glorious tea clippers, the zenith of sail trader design, the greyhounds of the sea.

I need a cargo and I need it now.  I need a shift in the wind and a good tide.  I could use a bit of power instead of sail.  I need to get off this desolate shore.  I need a touch of magic.

So, how do I unite a steam ship, a touch of magic and a poem about riding at dawn – ah, a cauldron.  Ships boiler, witches pot and the eye of the sun.

‘Ariel’ by Sylvia Plath

Stasis in darkness.

Then the substanceless blue

Pour of tor and distances.

God’s lioness,

How one we grow,

Pivot of heels and knees!—The furrow

Splits and passes, sister to

The brown arc

Of the neck I cannot catch,


Berries cast dark

Hooks—Black sweet blood mouthfuls,

Something else

Hauls me through air—

Thighs, hair;

Flakes from my heels.


Godiva, I unpeel—

Dead hands, dead stringencies.

And now I

Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.

The child’s cry

Melts in the wall.

And I

Am the arrow,

The dew that flies


at one with the drive

Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.

Eskimo Days


Depression is a terrible illness not so much because it renders people sad, with feelings of emptiness and worthlessness to the point of being suicidal.  What is so bad about depression is the lethargy of the mind that blocks the sufferer from taking affirmative action to deal with the condition.  You can fight diseases or cancers, you can defy chronic illnesses and battle to live life on your terms.  But melancholy is entropic drawing away energy, order and purpose.  It prospers by eroding the will.  It is amazing how many sufferers manage to rouse themselves for long enough to end it all by taking their lives.

Taking your life is, after all, an action, and a very final one.  It demands a firm commitment to a purpose.  The pain of depression must be phenomenal to rouse the sufferer to such certain closure.

Sylvia Plath was one such, who wrested with the blackness of the mind.  In her poem, Kindness, she speaks of the two things that kept her alive, her children (two roses) and the Blood Jet of Poetry.

Children and depression go hand in hand for many new mothers.  Imagine the utter sense of being out of your depth that is experienced by any new parent being combined with post-partum depression.  And yet, as Plath attests, often in her work, babies give you a purpose, a powerful impetus to survive and grant them care and protection.  Babies are natures anti-depressants.

And so to the Eskimo Days, when we grow old, and toothless, and can no longer chew raw seal.  Depression in the aged is a cruel taskmaster.  Old people live more in the past, as the weight of their accumulated memories overbalances any future potential.  Depression strips them of their ability to store up new memories, and makes it harder and harder to hold onto the old ones.

When a baby cries because it has dirtied itself we are driven by our natural inclinations to protect the poor cute helpless thing and clean it and look after it.  When an aged crone cries with discomfort it takes people with a very special degree of compassion to empathise with them.  Besides, a smack of a crutch can bring up a nasty welt.

So depression wraps a particularly icy talon round the hearts of the aged.  Those claws cut deep.

Candles; by Sylvia Plath

They are the last romantics, these candles:
Upside-down hearts of light tipping wax fingers,
And the fingers, taken in by their own haloes,
Grown milky, almost clear, like the bodies of saints.
It is touching, the way they’ll ignore

A whole family of prominent objects
Simply to plumb the deeps of an eye
In its hollow of shadows, its fringe of reeds,
And the owner past thirty, no beauty at all.
Daylight would be more judicious,

Giving everybody a fair hearing.
They should have gone out with the balloon flights and the stereopticon.
This is no time for the private point of view.
When I light them, my nostrils prickle.
Their pale, tentative yellows

Drag up false, Edwardian sentiments,
And I remember my maternal grandmother from Vienna.
As a schoolgirl she gave roses to Franz Josef.
The burghers sweated and wept. The children wore white.
And my grandfather moped in the Tyrol,

Imagining himself a headwaiter in America,
Floating in a high-church hush
Among ice buckets, frosty napkins.
These little globes of light are sweet as pears.
Kindly with invalids and mawkish women,

They mollify the bald moon.
Nun-souled, they burn heavenward and never marry.
The eyes of the child I nurse are scarcely open.
In twenty years I shall be retrograde
As these drafty ephemerids.

I watch their spilt tears cloud and dull to pearls.
How shall I tell anything at all
To this infant still in a birth-drowse?
Tonight, like a shawl, the mild light enfolds her,
The shadows stoop over the guests at a christening.

Sea Change


A sea-change refers to a gradual transformation process wherein the form is retained but the substance is changed.  It is a slow and gradual process.  Fossilization is a good example.  As the organic material decays away it is replaced gradually by inert silicates which take on the original form.  As a result petrified wood looks remarkably like wood, complete with cell structures, but made of stone instead of carbonaceous matter.

In character terms a sea-change might represent the transformation of a person in response to events.  Walter White in Breaking Bad comes to mind (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it).  His is a transformation from an ethical and impotent person to an amoral mover and shaker.  In fiction we usually see a sea change operate in the opposite way, as the flawed and weak character is transformed by events into a redeemed and sympathetic hero.  Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Jack Sommersby in the eponymous film or Christina Applegate’s character in Samantha Who?

A U-turn is a turn by a vehicle which completely reverses the direction of travel.  In politics in Britain & Ireland the term is used to refer to a reversal of a previous position.  In the USA it is called a Flip Flop, and in the antipodes it is called a backflip.  Whatever you call it the connotation is negative.  Politicians hate to be caught making a u-turn on policy to save a vote, a seat or an election, but it happens all the time.

So in Ireland the politicians have taken a leaf out of Shakespeare and have replaced the U-turn with the Sea-change.  Being cynical I guess if it is a U or a C that you inscribe you have reversed your direction in either case.  The intention amongst politicians is to dress up a position change as a positive thing.  But the metaphor is a nonsense.  The changes tend to happen in a very short time frame, so they are u-turns, not sea changes.  A political sea change might be a gradual emphasis shift from job creation to environmental improvement.  As a population matures the pressures on education systems ease and the pressures on health systems increase.  These kind of societal evolutions are sea-change issues for politicians through their career.  If you support asylum seekers this week and you cut funding for asylum seekers next week, that is a u-turn.

Ariel’s Song (from The Tempest) by William Shakespeare

Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:
Curtsied when you have, and kiss’d
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.
Hark, hark!
The watch-dogs bark.
Hark, hark! I hear
The strain of strutting chanticleer
Cry, Cock-a-diddle-dow.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.

Full Fathom Five: by Sylvia Plath

Old man, you surface seldom.
Then you come in with the tide’s coming
When seas wash cold, foam-
Capped: white hair, white beard, far-flung,
A dragnet, rising, falling, as waves
Crest and trough. Miles long
Extend the radial sheaves
Of your spread hair, in which wrinkling skeins
Knotted, caught, survives
The old myth of orgins
Unimaginable. You float near
As kneeled ice-mountains
Of the north, to be steered clear
Of, not fathomed. All obscurity
Starts with a danger:
Your dangers are many. I
Cannot look much but your form suffers
Some strange injury
And seems to die: so vapors
Ravel to clearness on the dawn sea.
The muddy rumors
Of your burial move me
To half-believe: your reappearance
Proves rumors shallow,
For the archaic trenched lines
Of your grained face shed time in runnels:
Ages beat like rains
On the unbeaten channels
Of the ocean. Such sage humor and
Durance are whirlpools
To make away with the ground-
Work of the earth and the sky’s ridgepole.
Waist down, you may wind
One labyrinthine tangle
To root deep among knuckles, shinbones,
Skulls. Inscrutable,
Below shoulders not once
Seen by any man who kept his head,
You defy questions;
You defy godhood.
I walk dry on your kingdom’s border
Exiled to no good.
Your shelled bed I remember.
Father, this thick air is murderous.
I would breathe water.