At first, a trail in dark or yellow patches
streaking the current, the water strangely green
a silver line on the horizon -
an untethered land, wild from seclusion
where all we wished for we could see, such was our need for enchantment;
then arriving, found it an empty windswept place
inconvenient, open to the weather
without sun, stars or moon; but a peculiar light of thought:
its contours obscured, its mountains rising to vanish
each buttress vaulting into air, each gulley descending to nothing
the whole mass clouded in an aura
of doubt, or fuddled sunlight, and ice-blink, all shadow erased.
Our ship butted forward, through milk fog
and penetrable furrows of rock and reef, soft ice hissing round the bow
our map-makers fumbled with their inks, bewildered, mis-sizing
as dull forms drew past on either side
their sheer glass, their dark white more form than substance;
and an odd feeling of forlornness came over us
as if we had sailed behind and beyond,
like the ships that curve over the horizon
and had arrived, now lost, among bleached-out headlands
tugged by some deep warm stream
our ship now weightless and emptied
the crew ancient, half-eroded, only traces pencilled in.
Then the sun slipped through a hole,
the monstrous hills receding upward suddenly,
small waves glancing and glittering,
the island now luminous in absence on a vast, blue sea.
Now, in the cloud light of age, old men about to tell the tale
will stumble into silence as, one by one, words fail
the truth no longer marvellous,
our island only existing as parts of other places -
like young ice forming on the current
hissing and curling, growing strange as it fragments
as little by little, nothing comes to mind
or perhaps nothing happened.
In 1558, the volume The discovery of the Islands of Frislanda, Eslanda, Engroneland, Estotiland, and Icaria was printed in Venice by two brothers of the Zeno family, Antonio and Nicolò the Chevalier. These islands continued to appear on maps of the North Atlantic long after they were proved not to exist.
Lesley Harrison is a writer and poet, and the vast bulk of her writing concerns how we locate ourselves in our landscape. 'Ecstatics: a Language of Birds' was a collaboration with Orkney artist Laura Drever, and won the National Library of Scotland poetry prize in 2012. 'Beyond the Map' (Mariscat, 2013) followed the route of the North Sea whalers up to the Northern Isles and into the polar seas beyond. 'Blue Pearl', a collection focusing on our mythologizing of the North, will be published by New Directions later in the year.