A Midsummer Light’s Nighthouse

Poet: W.N. Herbert


In Winter the Old High Light speaks
the language of the sea winds
and the hail: cold unwraps itself, sheet
after sheet, around its weeping edge.

In the spring it rediscovers sunlight,
lets the clouds peel off like gulls
from its lead-lidded eyeball. The earth wind mouths
against the landing door, yammering and keen.

But in the simmer-dim and dark it talks
in its own dialect: sudden as a stairwell
and silent as a corridor when the light-switch
flicks, it tells me how to listen.


Where do you think the music comes up from,
manifested in the taut ropes ringing
off masts of fishing boats, the grunt of motors rippling
like a fat moon’s dribble on the river
and the knocking tread that’s boxes, dropped upon the quays?

Where do you think the music groups itself
before the year turns over in the night?
It’s propped against these timbers like a giant lens;
it’s like a sunfish that’s warmed itself in top waters
the eye flashing as it rolls away and drops.


It is by how we translate silence that
the dead become retongued: listen to
this empty air that fills two centuries
and more of chamber with the dreaming crush
of families: how it holds the creases in
their faces, how it’s poised between their breaths.


Let the admiral slither from
his pedestal, turned from guanoed marble to
white walrus, a crawling beluga,
and pipe in his ship-whistle voice canary songs
of old calamities, wars dissolving on water.

Let the smuggler woman come
in her jellyfish petticoats, ribbons fouled with sons,
smearing the walls with rum-thickened venom,
and slur in old tobacco tones her press-gang blues,
her welcoming couplets like cold thighs.


The sea does not bring forth in Autumn
like an orchard - it draws back
like a page that’s pinched for turning.
We read in it abeyance, not a swell.

Therefore the mind exerts its right
to halt the story, poise us on this sill
before the river sweeps the chimes away
and buries yet another solstice out at sea.

These other lives that surged before us,
let them be the gap before this midnight’s tick:
our own no more inhabitable void succeeds it,
and the High Light is our common home.