Contemporary poets: 18 Pauline Stainer

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Pauline Stainer first came to prominence when she won the Stroud Festival poetry competition in 1984. She has since published two collections with Bloodaxe Books, The Honeycomb (1989) and Sighting the Slave Ship (1992), both of which combine mystic, almost visionary insights with hard, scientific knowledge: sharp but elusive, she is a sort of Emily Dickinson of Essex. Her sequence 'The Ice-Pilot Speaks' (one of whose 13 sections appears here) won the pounds 1,000 first prize in this year's Skoob Books / Index on Censorship International Poetry Competition.


St Brendan's monks

sail through the eye

of the iceberg

At first, they ran

with the shadow of the land

through light bluish fog

later, by moonlight,

the ship caulked

with tallow, shamans

clashing over the Pole

as if to earth

any dead in the rigging,

and at dawn,

floes gliding by,

chesspieces in lenten veils

the sea a silver-stained

histology slide,

the O of the iceberg

whistling like Chinese birds

with porcelain whistles

on their feet.

Even in prayer

they could never replay it -

the purity of that zero

Varese, playing

the density of his flute's

own platinum

the intervening angel

bearing a consignment

of freshwater.