MD Kerr

Villanelle for an Octant

Villanelle

Text of the poem

In the middle of the ocean, no landmarks in sight,
with just wood, bits of mirrors and an almanac –
and the knowledge to decipher an angle of light,

you will never be lost. The horizon’s a tight
and trembling line between blues as you tack
in the middle of the ocean. No landmark’s in sight

but you wait for the shadows to teeter: the height
of the sun will disclose all the secrets you lack.
With the knowledge to decipher an angle of light,

you can map all the world – but the air’s turning white
with the mists of the dead and the sails hang slack
in the middle of the ocean, no landmarks, no sight.

All your charts and your tables are useless, despite
their elegant copperplate: a cloud can attack
the knowledge to decipher an angle of light.

The mist’s turning black and the anchor rope’s tight.
You’re dreaming of water, not of what you’ll bring back,
in the middle of the ocean, no landmarks in sight,
with the knowledge to decipher an angle of light.

Thanks to The Writers' Greenhouse for the prompt to write a villanelle about a scientific instrument and to the Oxford History of Science museum for their wonderful videos and explanations.

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