Poetry Notes and Jottings

War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet


So we all find the shore before sunset

War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet
J.M.W. Turner, 1842

A cat may look at a king,
an exile may look at a rock limpet.
In rust-red, a doomed sun rides down,
haunts the sky and sea.
Tents on a battlefield look beautiful,
ethereal ghosts blown by wind
from fight to failure, ripped and ruined,
hanging from barren orchards, orange
in the salt marsh dusk.
                       Limpets grip
grimly to hard hats, strong
against gyre and flow, ever resisting,
grinding moats and entrenching
sockets into hollowed rock.
Mists sink as spectres, clean
of mire and mortality, stare
from eyeless orbits.
                        A cat may look at a king,
an emperor may look at a rock limpet,
while we, each one of us,
watched by an all-seeing guard,
cling on.

© Martin Porter 2012

This poem is an exercise piece, based on Turner’s painting in the Tate Britain. The poem uses a combination of colour palette and composition, scene setting and the introduction of ideosyncratic imagery in an attempt to emulate Turner’s vision. The introduction of the cliche (dating from as far back as 1562) “a cat may look at a king” is intended to reflect the odd image of the rock limpet in the painting. Using the cliche also aids the inversion of the emperor looking at the rock limpet and it is this inversion that is one of the crucial elements of the poem’s central question of who is in control here.

Other elements are also in play. The ghost-like tents as a metaphor of the spectral group of presumed dead army also reflects the conical shell of the limpet, and the hard hats of the limpet reflect the armour of the dead infantry. The motion of the sea is used as a metaphor of the ebb and flow of military campaigning. The similarity of sound between “guard” and “god” is also intentional.

What else is central to the poem? The inclusion of the audience, perhaps of the painting or perhaps of the poem, to make a final thought was important. I did not want to leave without the thought that we, all of us, may be in some way responsible for war, not necessarily directly, but possibly by our lifestyle choices, our wilful ignorance (or ignore-ance) of the desperation of others or just sheer indifference to our societal responsibilities.

Although an exercise piece, this poem has something to say, difficult as it must be to anyone who comes to it cold. This has grown from a simple collection of ideas from a painting to encompass contemporary and disturbing concepts.