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The Firth in Winter

Knife point in grey shale; slit, twist, prise, old strata
opened on shoreline, splayed like mackerel gutting;
cross-section of a fossil fish slabbed to light.

Broken in curve of a plunge, scooped gesture,
jutted bone chin-strap stretched to gulp at ocean,
sheened scales, spread armour's silver overlap,
skeleton fan finnage poised to change direction,
half shields of quivering gills. Barely an eye
returning his stare from that moment of split rock.

He'd thought they might be here, between sandstone cliff face
and the wide firth, as he chiselled names of the dead,
stonemason turning scientist. He'd sensed time
under his hands, traced rippling strata backwards
to the Genesis orchard. Old divines he'd read
had dated the world precisely counting scriptures,
setting years in stone, knew forty days of rain
covered the firth, let others handle fossils;
believed they must be verdicts drowned in judgement.

He'd traced new lines, hammered open limestone nodules
to find, leaded in the rocks, a spread of shoal;
enough, he noted, to fill a museum table.
He laid this flat fish out on his open hand.

He could turn it over, leave it among quartz cobbles,
red sea-planed sandstone where sea boots slipped on wrack,
where high tide left wedged water for reflection.

Puffed cumulus was greying into early evening,
long, slated wind had chilled his fingers numb
round the drowned fish, its brined bone pattern staining
dark canvas of his dry collectors' bag.

A lightship flashed far out, scything the water.
A warning light. He climbed the coastal path
sensing the dangerous catch in what he carried.

Martyn Halsall

This poem is based on the geological discoveries of Hugh Miller along the Moray Firth which fuelled Victorian scientific and theological controversies about the age of the world.