Opening the Atlas
Take an orange. Not for the moon/tide thing;
turn it until the bit that was attached
to the tree is angled towards your chin.
This is Antarctica. Think of a stone
being thrown into the Southern Ocean,
the ripples purling past the Equator
through the Bengal Plateau into Asia
where, for a moment, no one lives at all.
They are here, in the inset on the right,
on Rodriguez Island (to Mauritius)
or the scattered Crozet Islands (to France).
Some on Heard Island (to Australia),
but it looks like mostly ice and no trees.
That’s all. Put it back in the fruit bowl, please.
Disconcerted by no coastline at all,
which is true of the Prairie Provinces,
my gaze plunges in free-fall through the air
and lands on Lucky Lake, Saskatchewan.
There’s a hollow circle next to its name
indicating a medium sized town,
other similar circles all around
and a river within cycling distance
if you’re fit, but no lake of any kind.
There is, too, a large amount of beige space
and the words Great Sand hills and Cypress Hills
written in curved script a short drive away.
It may be lucky, but from this great height,
like God, I haven’t the faintest idea.
Almost certainly Magadanskaya
is not pronounced like that, and has by now
another name. Still I find myself here,
rather worryingly on a small horse.
It realises that I am a stranger
in these parts and I don’t know how to ride,
but it’s a patient beast and my saddle,
made of a strongly smelling hide, is quite
comfy. This last detail is just as well
as we’re heading for Ayan, which will take
about a year. Mountains are all around;
my fur hood comes almost down to my eyes.
It’s a funny thing but I’m quite happy
and may not come back, in spite of the flies.
Lake Tiberias stands out clear and blue.
Around its shores are the dry rolling hills
of the Bible, where men with long beards
wearing pleated tunics sit on boulders.
There are men in the market place with hats,
beards again, dark eyes and wise expressions.
Always men. Women are within white walls
in cool rooms with jars. But what do I know.
Only that south of Lake Tiberias
a fertile valley runs to the Dead Sea,
the whole shape of it, that of the female.
Once from a plane I saw it spread below
until the hostess pulled the window shade.
It’s too bright, she said. They want to watch films.
It can do your head in, looking at maps.
It becomes space and time, the chair covers
slightly furrowed, pouring like waterfalls
down its fat sides. I nestle between them,
willing myself into the Pacific,
a breathtaking place, not just no people
but nowhere for me to put my feet down,
not even a little barnacled rock,
only the sweep of continental shelf
sliding from pale blue to dark to purple.
Just turn on your back when you get tired
says my father; let the water hold you.
I do, spreading my arms and looking up
through sky, or time, into my own face.
Candy Neubert’s response to being shortlisted: ‘I’ve always written, having made a few forays into the short story and the novel, but poetry, always. News of this shortlisted poem just missed me at home; I had left for Scotland to take up a Hawthornden Fellowship – with the idea of working on an extended sequence of sonnets which lead on from this same poem. There’s no internet at Hawthornden (lovely); I’d walked a couple of miles in a small blizzard, wrapped in so many layers I could hardly breathe, thinking I may as well check emails – and there was the news from Strokestown. Having to catch my breath all over again.’ For more about Candy Neubert, click here.