‘The Salt Escape’ and other poems by Jude Cowan Montague

Too North

Due to the severe cold
we worked continuously
just to keep alive.
Sometimes our clothing
was frozen so hard
over our tattoos
we were unable to enter our bunks
until we threw hot water
over each other.
Our skipper had been urged
not to trust the charts
but to rely on his own knowledge
after a gale off Port Barrow
had blown us into
a narrow fjord.
Steaming down pitch hardship
in perfect calm
we neared a yellow band
fat with life; our trawler shouldered
through its skin of fire.
No cod or halibut for miles.
I dropped a double hook,
without bait,
to pull up two human skeletons,
W. Hatter’s sons,
missing since warm summer rain
unsettled the penal code.

From the Steps of St John

You can see them in the corner of your eye,
then they’re gone.
Sometimes you recognise them in a body like ours,
some well-kept, some more slovenly.
some fat, some squat.
Most of them are clever.
The buzzing and flying
are side-effects of natural power.
Never try to trap one.
Leave them matches and food.
They can help us but you have to give them things.
They have control of the wind.
Who knows what’s under their coats.
I have spotted the little dog prints
at the edge of the park where nobody’s been,
the tree twisted too close to the road.
There’s a hole in the sky
affecting us all.

The Salt Escape

‘Where are you going?’ I asked.
‘You never will find him again.’
She walked out onto the sodium plain
where sour gusts scour the crags.
She found a groove in the ground.
Her body fit inside the crack.
I lay down on top, pressed my face in her back
wrapping my feelers around
The snowlace winds whipped our flesh
to ribbons, though swaddled in fur.
I folded my legs close and breathed in her hair.
I dreamed we were eggs in our nest.
Stiffened to stone in the night
and humming to underground forces
we heard the dark whisper of runaway horses
shuddering into the light.

The Riff

Kofia-wearing djembe owners
are workshopping African merengue.
We shut our eyes. Listen to Dalston.
Close breathe sirens and exhausts, in, out.
We play the same riff for thirty minutes.
I write my own version. Not bad.
But it takes so long for me to learn
what I have written, I get finger cramp.
Folo asks me to be in his band.
I take round my boyfriend and he cooks us tomato rice.
I’m going to sing original songs
with a master guitarist from Sierra Leone.
Before rehearsals, he arranges photographs.
They are huge, severe, b/w.
My nose droops in the heavy contrast.
Folo doesn’t like the talc,
it puffs away his roguish sweat.
He knows a man in Homerton
with a very cheap motor for sale.
Above the cab office, a large blonde
half-pulls her cornblue negligee over her bosom.
Nearly everyone is in the bumpy bed,
and there’s a lot of us in the room.
A wide-eyed man clicks open a suitcase.
Out swims a school of dried fish.

Disappearance of the Body

While the ice sawed together,
the ghost story began
with the shrieking in the ventilator,
the wind always headed south.
As the photographer,
I had a dark room that used to be a store room.
My assistant ignored the long box
left on the stable marked ‘Surgical Supplies’.
Our fireman had left a chisel
and returned unexpectedly.
I thought it my bad luck
when he discovered the cut-up body.
The fireman said ghosts
do not make noises.
But how would a deaf man
hear them?
The biscuits ran out on Christmas Day.
It was time to clear off.
Some lay down on the snow
while the fireman and I walked about
while the wind hummed continuously.
Maybe it was the cold in my ears
but a crazy voice
pursued one of us.
Developing the negatives,
such an astonishing proposition
presented itself to me
that I have never ceased thinking of it since.

The Mirror

How had she come here?
That answer was easy.
She had looked in the mirror.
Then she had walked into the mirror
at which moment
she walked into herself.
Or not herself, but herself
in mirror world. Where she
was still herself.
She was still Alice.
Alice was a fixed point in time.
She was safe only in
who she thought she was
while everything
around her was changing
so fast, faster than breakfast
down to dinner and sleep
and the next day on its crazy round
of meals and conversations.
Time was backwards
but she was still going forwards
when the White Queen tried
to grab her escaping shawl,
flinched at her own blood
and finally pricked her skin
as Alice helped her fasten
the cloth around her shoulders.
Alice tried her best to help the Queen.
but Alice hadn’t understood
that it was Alice who was wrong.
‘I’m talking to myself again,’ she noticed.
She was still a child,
and her confusion was that of a child’s.
These adults, even if they were chess pieces
ran past her complaining and crying
until the knight caught her in his arms
and lifted her high in the air.
She didn’t want to be a prisoner.
She needed to cross the brook
and become Queen Alice
but the White Knight was too strong,
holding her upside down,
trapped inside her own logic.
The Salt Escape and other poems are © Jude Cowan Montague

Jude Cowan Montague worked for Reuters Television Archive for ten years. Her album The Leidenfrost Effect (Folkwit Records 2015) reimagines quirky stories from the Reuters Life! feed. She produces The News Agents on Resonance 104.4 FM. Her most recent book is The Originals (Hesterglock Press, 2017).