This poem emerged after I had seen a documentary programme about Macquarie Island, an Australian but sub-Antarctic dot-on-the-map in the Southern Ocean, south of New Zealand. Coleridge's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner' seemed a suitable matrix on which to build it.
The big bird spreads its vast black wings
over high-flown, tufted, blustering clifftops,
takes a waddling, flapping run-up, flings
its great bright body forward, and downward drops -
a cruciform parabola, askew through scrambled spume:
done with land, it sails the first uproaring draft
beyond the föetid, reproductive island shore, a flume
allows the whistling ocean wind to craft
'tween heaving rollers a final glance
at the rocky prize of its solitary two year sea-dance.
The ocean's wanderer, gone into billowing maelstrom, is secure
in nature's arms; no pale soul plays the dice of death,
only solitude under scudding wrack confirms the lure
of Coleridge's romantic guise. The albatross conserves its breath
for the hunt, then rests in the seaway's rolling arms; seeks
no companion, succour, favour from the roiling crash
of thundering breaksea rollers. Thus exiled, the windrift sailor ekes
its life on fickle chance, in spiteful rainstorm lash
till, white with age, the grizzled warrior scans the far horizon line,
no more to test the gale, nor grasp unwary fishes through the brine.
For now it seeks a ship for scraps, to trail her stern as did
the ancient albatross in the poet's tale; fain
would it lead her crew from an icy Antarctic grave, and bid
them well, and perhaps a Mariner's cross-bow bolt for its pain.
But my eyes see an albatross incline with grace and whip
over oil-calm ocean deeps, a sight exultant beyond measure
as it dips a millimetrically precise jet wing-tip,
scratching its name on the sea, for its pleasure.
My ship may fetch still upon a painted ocean,
yet will I be cradled in the idle rhythms of its motion.