When all is said and done, poets love words. I have read many poems that were clearly written in part to catalogue a beloved lexicon, a set of “shoptalk,” and these poems are almost always in some way playful; fanciful. I have also contemplated that old saw about the Eskimos many a time: that they have many, many terms for snow. What I enjoy so much about Judith Beveridge’s poem “Liam” touches on both these ideas, because Beveridge provides a partial catalogue of winds, and that catalogue inverts this idea about a single language inventing all these words for different characteristics of a weather phenomenon, and shows instead a language inheriting these words for winds that vary in their character all over the globe. A samoon is not a sirocco. Beyond this, the poem exists as more than this catalogue of winds: it is also a portrait of Liam, the new boy on this fishing boat that is central to the narrative sequence of poems at the heart of Judith Beveridge’s Storm and Honey. As a portrait, though, the poem stands alone, even as the other characters present through Storm and Honey stand at the edges.
In my imagination, the act of fishing is a leisurely pursuit—but those tranquil hours of waiting for the fish to bite are simply my own naive association when I think of anglers. Not so in this and other poems in Storm and Honey, which follows commercial, rather than leisured, fishermen. “Liam” forces the reader to forget any idyllic ideas at the outset, so that the slowed pace that enters mid-poem is truly a surprise. Not only does the speaker “drive [his] blade into the fish’s anal opening” (how can one not be arrested by such a seemingly anti-poetic opening?) but he also drives the reader into an uncompromising poem that literally offers up the guts, and becomes not only a portrait of Liam, but also of the speaker. There is a distinctive character to the language: the specifics of the fish bodies around which the speaker is so comfortable (“I can smell/ the urea turning into ammonia”), the easy slang (“pissing against the pylons”; “Liam reckons”; “I hope Grennan doesn’t sack him”) and directness—“But I like Liam.” Beyond these features, the poem is distinctly physical, as the speaker drives, cuts, lifts, scoops, pulls, showing the reader a this bustle of activity.
Until that bustle slows. Halfway into the poem a stillness takes us by surprise, as “the silence goes on” amid the thoughts of our narrator, and Liam’s musings breaks into that silence. In contrast to the active speaker, Liam appears passive, looking up at the clouds, revealing his wish to lie down or to sit in different places in the world as his beloved winds blow through. This ritardando allows the reader to see the control Beveridge has over the musical and narrative pace of the poem.
This slowed interval of wind-talk stretches into the moment the poem resumes work, as the speaker suddenly tells us “I sever another fish’s head…” as, all of a sudden, he too stops to watch, likening the pelican who comes to take away the fish guts to a windsock raised by the breeze.
“Liam” appears in Judith Beveridge’s collection Storm and Honey, available from Giramondo.
I drive my blade into the fish’s anal opening,
cutting through the belly all the way to the gills.
I lift out the innards then scoop away the reddish
brown kidney line from along the backbone.
I cut across the belly flap, pull the fillet back,
run my knife right through to the thick silver
skin on the fish’s underside. I look over at Liam,
the new boy. Already I can tell he’s ruined
the afternoon’s catch of wobbegong. Grennan
had told him to clean under the backbone,
to remove all the blood and spleen, but he
hasn’t drained all the blood out and I can smell
the urea turning into ammonia. Girolamo,
the fishmonger, when he smells the pungent
odour, will not buy our catch. Liam has left
the cleaning tables and is down by the shore
pissing against the pylons and the truck tyres
used to stop ferries banging into the wharf.
Yesterday when we were cleaning, we found
a bottle of old bourbon in a bull shark’s
stomach. The top was starting to corrode,
the label to dissolve. Later I found Liam
behind the boatshed snoring, giving off
loud burps. He reckons he once worked
with a fisherman who opened up a mako
and found a roll of lino and a tin drum.
But I like Liam. We don’t talk much, we just
think our thoughts while the silence goes on.
Sometimes he’ll look up at the clouds
riding quickly overhead and he’ll tell me
about winds: virazon, zondo, bayamo,
chinook, samoon, sirocco, tramontana.
He knows which shores, deserts, oceans
and mountains they all blow in from,
which ones can reach hurricane force, how
some will blow around the planet for months.
He tells me one day he wants to lie down
on the pampas grasslands of Uruguay
just when the cold pamper follows the path
of a depression as it tracks up from the south
bringing its squall lines and heavy rain;
to follow the cold blast of the williwaw
into the Straits of Magellan; or sit where
the dust-laden leveche brings the tang
of mint, goats and lemons from Morocco
into southern Spain. I know Liam will leave
one day on a steady breeze, go somewhere
inland. I hope Grennan doesn’t sack him.
I sever another fish’s head, throw the guts
to the pelicans, watch one of them lift as lightly
as a windsock as it heads for the sea.