Dunstanburgh

An epic of the wild Northumbrian coast, invoking history, myth and memory. First broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

No road leads to Dunstanburgh Castle; but over the course of a year Katrina Porteous, who lives within sight of this lonely Northumbrian ruin, visited it in all weathers, minutely observing its seasonal changes. The result is this poem, first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in February 2004. Dunstanburgh draws on the local legend of a child trapped in the rock and of the Seeker who must search for her; on the memory of raids by Scots reivers; and on the political ideal of 'good lordship' which the castle was built to embody. Using chants, dialect and the wild music of the castle itself - kittiwakes, skylarks, swallows, waves, wind and rain - the poem evokes the secret history, human and natural, of this mysterious, windswept place.


Extracts

Build me a tower...

Build me a tower. Make it high,
Like a city set on top
Of a hill, let it be seen
Like a landmark for a ship,
Like a dagger in a fist,
Or like a claw, or like a crest,
Or like a warrior, one sprung
From the seed of standing stones,
Or like an angle–iron, strong,
Or like a snarl, a scowl, a frown,
Or like a riddle in the rock,
Or like a key without a lock,
Or like a head upon a block,
Or like a crown upon a king.

Find me a spring. Dig me a lake
To surround my tower. Make
A silver island of the mind.
Let it shiver in the wind,
That, like a meeting with a twin,
Or like a ghost beneath a glass,
Or like a mirror and a face,
Or like an echo from the past,
Like a lily, like a swan,
Like a vision or a dream,
You may read it as a sign,
The reflection of the stone
Like the pages of a book,
Like a sword fast in a rock,
Or like a key without a lock,
Or like the Isle of Avalon.

An August night...

An August night. Above the clouds
Over the Egyncleugh, the moon

Rises. The wind is slowing down,
The world relaxing into sleep.

Not a bird on the water. Only the hush
Of the long grass, and the sea's wash,

And the slightest stir of birds on the cliff –
A cleared throat, a chuckle, a cough:

A ship of sleepers cast adrift.
A crane–fly whirs. Papery moths,

Water–marked wings the colour of stone,
Drift through the thistles; and the moon,

Climbing, draws a path across
The darkening water; phosphorous

Catching the ripples as they run
In liquid silver, a seething shoal
Of scales and fire.

     The castle walls
Loom higher in the dark, a great
Wrecked ship. The moon illuminates

Its cargo – feathery grasses, lichens,
Spokes of hogweed, may–crown plantains,

Daisies, studding the decks like stars.
Its brightness calls, and all light things answer.

In the courtyard, around the foundations,
The kitchens, the chapel, the Constable's chambers,

Leathery wings flit. Woodlice trundle,
Armour on stone. A spider trembles,

A web's bulls–eye in the moon's full glare.
On the arc of its journey, fierce white fire

Catches and fills a heart–shaped window.

And the deepest dark of the castle walls –
Doors going nowhere, hearths, holes,

Garderobes, stairways bent at odd angles –
Join with the wider dark, the miles

Of field and heugh, and wind–blown fell,

Millennia of dark, the men
And women lost beyond recall,

Absorbed in silence, earth and stone.

Oot a the neet...

Oot a the neet
Wi'oot a soond,
Ower the heather
An' benty groond,
Ower the moors
An' ower the mosses,
Th' grab wor kye,
Th' steal wor hosses,
Th' raid wor hemmels
An' byres an' steeds
An' born wor hooses
Aboot wor heeds.

Th' come like the wund
Or the snaa' in June.
Th'll gollup the meat
For' off yee'r spoon.
Th'll tyek yee'r spindle,
Yee'r kist an' quern,
An' strip the blanket
For' off the bairn;
They'll whup the sark
For' off'n yee'r back,
Then trapple yee'r barley
An' fire yee'r stacks.

Th' bring nae baggage
An', when they've fled,
Leave nowt but widders
An' empty beds;
Empty bellies
An' hairts as sair
As fields a stubble
And esh. Aah sweer,
Though this be the country
God forgot,
The divvil receive
The reivin' Scot!

Reviews

'A rugged, powerful epic poem'

The Sunday Times

'a musical score for voices and natural sounds... a recording to be heard through the eyes. Katrina Porteous is probably one of the most exciting musicians around at the moment.'

Aesthetica

'I wish I'd heard the broadcast.'

The Crack

'an epic, both in scale and effect... succeeds entirely in conjuring a wall of noise, layered and merging... filmic, acutely visual... it's a rare pleasure to be able to read about one's homeland and recognise it so clearly'

Paul Summers, Dreamcatcher

'History as lifeblood... not as ghosts, but as part of the earth and of us.'

Julia Copus

'This 'radio poem' gets the ruins to sing.'

Other Poetry

'One of the most exciting talents of the North East'

The Times

'A poet with an ear that few can match'

Sean O' Brien