A book-length poetic sequence set in remotest Orkney conjures up images of lives lived in isolation
"And then went down to the ship, / Set keel to breaker, forth on the godly sea," runs the epigraph from Ezra Pound to Andrew Greig's Found at Sea. Between Douglas Dunn on St Kilda, Kathleen Jamie on North Rona and Jen Hadfield gazing across to Foula, there is scarcely a remote Scottish island that does not enjoy regular poetic traffic, a trend enthusiastically continued here.
Greig's destination is the Orcadian isle of Cava, a name to add fizz to any narrative though here meaning "calf island". Cava is a "deserted repeat deserted island", which is to say it has been depopulated twice. It is arguably best-known for its association with the pirate John Gow, who, according to Daniel Defoe, carried off two servant girls from the island. Strangely, Greig doesn't mention him, concentrating instead on the story of two women who became Cava's two sole inhabitants in 1959 and stayed for three decades.
In the absence of any testimony from "Miss Woodham and Miss Peckham" explaining their reasons for moving there, Greig is forced to add some heavily-signalled drama to their decision ("they took a deep breath, stepped North"). What they got up to on the island is also sketchy ("I guess they got good at crosswords"), leaving the poem more than a little dependent on our projected fantasies of far-flung places ("Our course is plotted not in the life we've got but the one we've vowed not to have", as we read in one of the charming artworks by Mike McDonnell accompanying the poem.)
Our poet-sailor is distrustful of intellectualising small-talk ("don't come all post-Modern / with me, mate"), but in between frequent references to "beloveds" at home is at pains to insist that he and his fellow old tars are "not womanless sad sacks" or "Boy Racers in denial". The element of willed hardship here (men without women eat not meals but "rations") suggests all the elective ruggedness one would expect from a former Himalayan mountaineer.
From Pound's first canto to WS Graham's "The Nightfishing" and MacDiarmid's superlative translation of "The Birlinn of Clanranald", modern poetry is awash with seafaring masterworks. Like them, Found at Sea aspires to make a craft of its own saying. "Night Beacon" metaphorises the stirrings of inspiration as lights at sea ("blink and gone / back again / and so on // You awake over there, pal?"). The Orcardian poet George Mackay Brown is much invoked, with the poet and his fellow musicians huddling round the brazier of images conjured in Mackay Brown's "Hamnavoe" ("Into the fire of images / Gladly I put my hand").
Not all Greig's images catch fire with equal clarity, it must be said. Read aloud, the adjective "gurly" might sound like an unlikely description of the North Sea, but not half as unlikely as a reference to "lumps / of water". As line-breaks go, "funds raised by flogging / all non-essential goods" fairly trips over its shoelaces. More successful are the moments when Greig inclines to a ritualistic style, recalling the seagoing passages of Bunting's "Briggflatts", as in "Homewards" ("Top of the tide / sea door opens / mast swings upright / hull quivers far off").
Perhaps Found at Sea subliminally registers this tension when "A doubtful sailor's prayer" declares "Pray not for someone to calm these waters", the turbulence beyond our human comfort zone providing the poem with its most congenial subject matter. It is a paradox common to all wilderness writing. His "only anchor", Greig claims, is "the kind / filled with the flux we move through", which states without quite solving the same problem. "We're not beginning to … to … mean something?" Hamm asks nervously in Beckett's Endgame, and the problem for Greig is that all his principled flux might become a destination of its own, with ready-made spiritual meaning to match, as when the watery depths become "utter calm / sunk, a stone Buddha, at the bottom of all".
The most memorable expression of this ambivalence comes at the death, when Greig informs us that Mackay Brown's last words were "I see hundreds of ships leaving harbour", and comments "Trust a poet / to hoard a good last line / then toss it overboard." Phlebas, the drowned Phoenician sailor, would not have made half so good a subject for The Waste Land had he managed to swim back to land. The suspicion remains that the "liquid field" may swallow up the poet even as he ploughs it, but the poem comes to rest on an impressive note of loss accepted: "Every lover, parent, friend / at the end sails away / from we who harboured them."
The grammatical mistake here ("we" should be "us") hints at unresolved doubts, however. Few people experience hanging more than once, but John Gow did, when a first attempt ended with a broken rope. As poets reach middle age and the no less traumatic trapdoor of neglect beckons, some go meekly to their fate and others kick back, hard. Found at Sea is a bold attempt at imbuing epic scope and adventure into a book-length sequence, but tends to work best when truly embracing the open sea rather than in the safety of any of its harbours.
• David Wheatley's A Nest on the Waves is published by the Gallery Press.