The Point of Vanishing Stability

In a yacht, the point of vanishing stability
is reached when the vessel decides
it has had enough of gales and tumult
and will overturn. In the boat we are on,
this is a measurable angle, defined
by calculation and testing. We are pleased
to learn it is 120°
Summoning up our mathematical imagination
we place the mast well below the surface
with our boat springing back to save us
as we tumble about our beam ends.

It is a phrase that seizes. Passing
straight from the workshop manual
to the page of possibility. As we charge
the waves, and crash through with
jovial insouciance, the world and
its endless chaos breaks upon the
decks to tumble past in salty streams.

And so we trust to all designers
that the keel will hold beneath, that
the mounting pressure on the sails
will spill from the tops like so much
laughter. And so with all the lubberly
uproar from our safety-conscious lands,
with bitter crowds converging
on the monuments they would disown,
with grave ministers of state who
battle with the tide of numbers
competing for our panic or our grief.

May the bow split water still,
may whosoever did the sums
and placed us in this sea have got it right.
Through edgy fears and sacrifice
we stand fast to the wheel, and
still keep on tacking home, past tipping
points that howl but never come.

The Mull of Kintyre
August 2020

2 thoughts on “The Point of Vanishing Stability

  1. Thank you for the poem, John. It’s good to hear you are safe and well and writing.

    Here are some thoughts on what’s happening in “Vanishing Stability”.

    In “Vanishing Stability’ the poet explores the limits of the metaphorical power of yacht-design: for government planning; for human attempts to rationalise unpredictable fate of ‘endless chaos’; to demonstrate heroic resolution as ‘ we stand fast to the wheel’; as well as prefiguring ‘a page of possibility’ where the reader is conjured – maybe too swiftly – into believing the yacht – with a mind of its own – has a human design. And there lies limits of the metaphor, in the tension between the yacht as a personification awarded the capacity to choose when ‘it has had enough’ at the mercy of the elements on the one hand, while it’s also a machine with an origin in a workshop manual and at the mercy of human fallibility on the other. The reader can only observe figurative possibilities working themselves out against one another.

    The moralistic texture of the “Vanishing Stability” disappears in a virtuoso verbal performance. On a prosaic level, ‘Vanishing Stability” confirms both optimist and pessimist: the optimistic reader leaves the poem on a hopefully, ‘tipping points…never come’. We can tack home. The ‘howl’ is empty. The poem also confirms the resolute pessimist in the belief that life is certainty, a howling chaos of ‘panic or grief’.

    The success of the poem lies in the way it demonstrates the limit of metaphor. In this sense, “Vanishing Stability” has a contemporary appeal. As a study in human chaos and despair, the poem, strains for effects in enlisting current protest events and government U-turns. In this way, the poem merely falls into the trap laid by Cyril Connolly that “after Auschwitz every poet is judged on the quality of his or her despair.”

    I’d stick with the metaphors, John.

    Keep safe and keep well, Love to everyone,

    John >


  2. Brilliant, in every sense of the word. We are at sea – and, or, so, in the contemporary body politic. A Metaphyical piece – JD would have been proud! Wystan also would have liked the last verse.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s