Fishing boats on the beach
Fishing boats on the beach at Saintes-Maries-De-La-Mer
One of these boats carried Mary,
put to sea by the Romans,
the crying woman, hands wrapped with rags
that smell of myrrh. And a tomb angel
guards the beach. All the fishers have fled in fear
except the one who stayed to spread his cloak
over the water. For the women
in the boat, no sail, no paddles.
And the mourning Mary. Miracles,
she tells him, are untouchable.
The fisher guides her hand
to the red boat's prow,
the old wood thick
with loving paint. Hold fast
mother, he says
and the women are gone.
Flat sea. Four boats
returned to shore. Curdled cod's breath
sky. A yellow mast, yellow grass.
Some kind of large grey wing
floating in the water,
washing up against the rock.
One can't help but be impressed immediately by Goodwin's imaginative rendering of what has happened before these boats were caught on the sand, awaiting Van Gogh. This is one of the lovely results that accompany such imaginative ekphrasis, to see what history the artist might imagine or know in the composition, and Goodwin energizes the painting's composition with the ideas and music of that narrative. The work takes us beyond the frame of the painting, back to a story of how these boats arrived at that point on the sand from having delivered "the crying woman, hands wrapped with rags/ that smell of myrrh". In such a journey, the painting is now mythic, and the words explore immense ideas, enlivened by the narrative's touching on the absences echoing within each pitch of the brush. In this way the boats, singled out in the final lines, do act as sentinels, necessarily silent interpreters, the kind of evidence that the naked eye might not have seen otherwise. Such a narrative has gained some of its power from Goodwin's early lines about so much history happening (and except for the poem, all unseen) among the apparent the absence of things: "no sail, no paddle" and the "fishers ...fled in fear" as well as the tenor of sadness, mourning, that makes the landscape both solemn and touched by miracle. Now those echoing brush strokes of Van Gogh's sky seem to vibrate for me. Lovely.
Amy Newman, October 2006
The Guardian Poetry Workshop Shortlist