In the Antelope Bar strangers of passage
gather to digest their dinner over drinks,
and slip away from England in brochured comfort.
Where we sit, a modest painting disturbs the wall’s
chromatic harmony. Enshrined in brassy light,
it’s artless tribute shows narrow land,
a brief, unsheltering sea, and two ships caught
in the trap of war: Antelope broken in two,
her risen bow an elegant finger of authority
in the defeating air; and Norland, black hulled
and squat, escaping an explosion of brush strokes
in the impassive water at her stern.
Tonight, in pastel pinks and greys, and trimmed
reflectively in chrome, she moves with safety
on the oily darkness, and we can share
with drinks and cigarettes, that necessary
spoil of war, indifference. But in
the disco, on the light shadowed floor,
where now two lines of swaying figures row
to the commands of music learnt in clubs
in safe English towns, they might have brought
the wounded, burned or bloody from the sea,
and lain them, the assault of air and history
still screaming in their ears. Beneath the bleary
excitement of the music, great engines turn.
There is a shiver in the soft clad floor.
And out there, in the stream of night’s ugly
tenderness, Jellicoe’s great Navy grappled
indecisively with the Imperial Fleet
of the usurper, and unvanquishable
dreadnoughts split their sides and poured their crews’
closed lives into the minute’s oceans.
To such tunes of glory as were played,
boys drowned, and ‘our bloody ships’ kept to their
schedules. Over such waters do we dance,
our moving pleasures measured by the closing
of the bar, a final slow paced sway
in careless arms, and coffee served to keep
awake the conversation. Beyond the glass,
a continent of wind sweeps past, unnoticed.
In the daylight, Zeebrugge’s harbour extends
two claws into the grey flecked sea. Norland
sails past immaculate where other tourists died.
The upturned bathtub boat, the TV lights,
the hand beneath the canvas shroud. Ungraspable.
Dawn and sobriety bring closer touches
of such ironies. Shivering from the cold,
we cluster to the funnel, and look out across
the half healed gulf in silence. From the ship’s
steel heart come shudders of warmed air. At last,
we go below to wait our final call.