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Lay for the Day
16th April

The feast day of St Magnus of Orkney, a Viking earl who was murdered by his cousin Haakon and his followers in 1116. He was a devout Christian, and his death was accepted as a martyrdom, although his killers’ motives appear to have been more political than religious.
Magnus became the patron saint of the guild of fishmongers in London. A church near the Thames is dedicated to him, and appears in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, in an appropriate connection: “O City city, I can sometimes hear / Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street, / The pleasant whining of a mandoline / And a clatter and a chatter from within / Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls / Of Magnus Martyr hold / Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.”
(The fishmonger of this poem is Steve Hatt of Essex Road, Islington.)


Gemmy and glutinous, mineral pinks and whites,
the flesh-fat fish lie in tribes on their beds of ice,
gifts of an alien, endlessly refreshing sea.
Wild salmon glittering and sprats like stainless bay leaves;
knobbly fruit of scallop and the flaccid whiting,
soft and grey as tin; coral slabs of skate wing,
thigh-thick halibut, the flounders’ flower-dotted turves…

A choked and troubled city air reverberates
into the narrow distance. From lobsters to plaice
to purpled, milky squid we inch past patiently,
becalmed in the bustle by their chill potency.
Wounded knights, the magnificent armed crustaceans
rise, then fold a jointed feeler in submission.
Underneath them, the blood-pinked frost glistens and grieves.

But those who weigh this split silver
are brisk and full of savour as the sea itself.
Levantines, Chinese, Greeks and West Indians
queue for what we have in common,
salt of the multiplying ocean.

John Gibbens
from Pisces


The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar

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