Caught by the River

The Ghost Auks

17th November 2011

by John Barlow: I usually write haiku, or other short poetry, but I wrote this longer poem in response to the whole concept of Ghosts (of Gone Birds) after Clem Fisher kindly showed me the boxes of Great Auk bones in the collection of extinct birds in the World Museum, Liverpool – including those collected by her father, the great ornithologist James Fisher, complete with his wonderful handwritten notes, the bones and paper aged to an almost identical shade of brown. I spent an afternoon with these remains, which to me were more evocative of both the living birds and their fate than a complete specimen could be. The poem began to arrive a few weeks later, drawing its bare facts from the 19th Century accounts of people who were actually there – notably one Laughlan McKinnon, then aged about 30, who caught the St Kilda Great Auk with his father-in-law, Malcolm MacDonald, and a fellow St Kildan, Donald McQueen.

The Ghost Auks

The last accepted record of a Great Auk in Britain comes from St Kilda, circa 1840, the bird being held captive for three days before being killed as a witch. A later sighting was reported from Belfast Bay in 1845, a year after the species is now widely considered to have become extinct. A pair of “large birds, the size of Great Northern Divers . . . but with much smaller wings” were described as “almost constantly diving”, going “to an extraordinary distance each time with great rapidity”.

I died at sea.
The details need not concern us,
but it was somewhat unfortunate, before my time.
Queenie stayed around for three days, searching for me.
I’d dive with her, to the depths of Bailey.
Forty fathoms she’d go, deeper
than we’d ever dived before. Even the shoals
that would splinter at our spear bills
began to ignore her.
She wouldn’t feed. Just rested on the surface,
then dived again, for fifteen minutes
or more. But I could swim forever now,
reach five hundred fathoms a dive.
Let me tell you, the sea bed, when I saw it,
was far more interesting then.
Teeming. Alive.

After three days Queenie was exhausted. She drifted,
in and out of consciousness, and sometimes, I know,
she thought she saw me, guiding her to land.
A summer storm was at our backs, and then the sound
of the water changed; different smells
hinted in the air. Stac an Armin loomed into view,
a hundred fathoms high,
its hard, gabbroic edges the only thing now
between Queenie and the next world. With one huge effort
she hurtled through a wave crest, made landfall
on a narrow ledge. Spindrift whipped into the crevices,
drove her from the edge. We’d been here before, a few of us,
many tides ago, and Queenie knew the way. A grass incline,
up the stack, away from the waves.

I didn’t hear them, the men.
They crept up on us, three of them, as Queenie slept.
The most grizzled one, MacDonald, crouched down
and grabbed her neck. I stabbed at him,
but I went straight through his weather-
scarred arms, his stinking groin, the twisted femurs
of his cliff-bowed legs. He never saw me;
didn’t feel a thing. Queenie was struggling
as hard as she might. And then the other two
caught her legs, and lashed them, the brined rope
wincing through her skin; tight.

They carried her off then, to their bothy,
Queenie slung between them
in a burlap sack. There was little else I could do
but follow. Stooping through the doorway
they slammed the door. I took the wall. They tipped Queenie
out of the sack, feet-bound, in a corner; lit a fire; slit
some fish. One of them, McQueen, threw a few scraps
to Queenie, but they lay there too, gathering the dirt.
Every now and then the third man, McKinnon, would
look over at her as she groaned, as if he wasn’t quite sure
what to make of her. We’d been common here once,
us Garefowl, but I don’t think any of the three
had seen one of us before. And no wonder.
In these parts, me and Queenie, we were the last
of the Garefowl, last of the King Murrs, last
of the Great Auks.

By evening the storm was upon us.
The rain sliced in hard, the wind found every gap
between the stones. For two nights and days
the men huddled over their fire, uttering the odd prayer
to their god. Smoke thickened and thinned in the bothy,
making its way out of the walls when the gale
gathered itself between howls. And Queenie lay
where they’d dropped her, silent now.

By nightfall on the third day the smoke
was almost gone with the fire. The occasional glow
caught the streams from their nostrils,
their cracked, quietened lips, their furrowed brows.
They ate
what they ate
Lightning flashed across the walls, the makeshift
shelves, the two-bit-of-driftwood crucifix, the rough-
hewn door. It picked out the embers, the scattered pots
and pan, two rain-soaked lumps of gabbro,
and Queenie,
in her corner,
giving it her all.

It was McKinnon who said it, that perhaps she was a witch,
that perhaps it was her that brought the storm. The men
huddled together, for what seemed an age, muttering
between themselves. Then in a lightning flash
MacDonald picked up a lump of gabbro, took a few steps
in the thunder-rolling darkness and hurled it at Queenie.
The stone missed, thudding into the floor.
And so it went, with each flash:
a stone retrieved, a stone thrown; each man
hesitating in turn.
The end, when it came, came mercifully,
came with a stick. It had taken an hour. Maybe more.

The storm abated, moved away. Under bright skies
they threw Queenie’s body behind the bothy, rowed
their small boat back to Hirta, to kith
and kin. But Queenie and I were long gone,
diving to depths we’d never dived to, King
and Queen of the Murrs.
We kept well clear of men after that, not
that they could harm us. They saw us, just the once,
five years later off the coast of Belfast.
Carried away, ghosting, beneath the waves.

more of John’s poetry can be found at
The Ghosts of Gone Birds exhibition is at The Rochelle School, London, until November 23rd.