Mr. Coelacanth considers Uppsala
by Marie Marshall
Uppsala, broad-axed, bearded, Nordic kings
take thrones of state, mead and ale flow
from foamed hartshorns, suns sear a midnight sky,
or so it goes in my idle dreams.
Behind the harbour wall at Norrtalje, bobbing in ripples,
the finn-sold, fin-sailed, flying-fish galleys nod,
talk in the undertones of the halyards’ slap on masts,
of the Baltic swells they tacked and snake-hulled
a year ago as they rounded Åland lodestone-bound
for Riga, the amber city, and for the broad rivers of Rus
where their berserkers leapt ashore to found kingdoms
to the glory of Uppsala.
Here in Uppsala every fourth man is mailed,
every fourth woman is green-gowned,
gold-kirtled with runes, every corner rings
with the sound of lur, of stråkharpa, of fele, and of psaltery,
wheat-shirted children run the blond street
singing the Trettondagsmarchen, begging for bezants.
Here sits their solemn All-Thing, to decide the right
to barley and to wives, to monopolies in akkavit,
to axe and holm, to dour theology, to clinker-hulls,
to the wearing of fox-fur and elk-hide, to the franchise
of the Saami of Laponia, to red-gold, to weaving,
to patterns in knitted wool, to the bourns of charity,
to the meanings of stage-plays, to the enmity of peoples,
to the grey of suits and ties, to the served time of doctors.
And in the bleak, birched, lake-banded hinterland
dour detectives rake for bones, wooden houses
sting the air with pine-resin, the fishbone arrowheads
that hunters use are traded in the market-villages
for barter-goods to change for Uppsala silver –
the beaten silver of the holy plates hidden
in the reliquaries of sitka-spired churches.
Across the sea marshes and inlets comes the mist,
the breath of the great Dragon of the Baltic,
cold monster that tells of ice, migrating bears,
and the clangour of strange, brazen bells.
She reminds the burghers of Uppsala
that the balance of their simmer-dim is
the death-in-life of winter night, the sightless days
chased by old, lancing stars and northern lights.
The stride of beard-brave champions on pitching boards
or flagged thoroughfare, the ringing fall of boots,
the wending of men who measure time in leagues travelled,
all these come to Uppsala in the end; all the salt-fish
come here by net, by lure, or of their own seeking,
all the following, hungry glutton-seals and seagulls,
all the scuttling crabs too; every adventuring clan
of Lett, of Rus, of Tatar, and of Gael gravitate to kneel
by Queen Uppsala, each chieftain swearing by his pagan-ness
to be her man-at-weapons, each chieftain’s daughter
to be her maid-at-linen, each thrall to be hers
to use as she will. Each oarsman dedicates his blisters,
and the trip-trap of horses from the longship’s slender gangway,
to the quays and godowns on the Fyris-side,
over cobbles, to the smooth mountain-stone
of the chateau-courtyard, sounds for the Queen.
Ah, Uppsala, a Queen to whom bow lesser
and bend the knee – Osthammar, Hallstavik, Nacka,
Vaasa, Turku, Mariehamn, humble embassies –
your scepter and your bow, your altars to the Æsir
and to the Lutheran God, your awesome Majesty,
how happy must your burghers be in their guilds
and free assemblies, their crafts and churches,
their marching bands, their fire-watches,
their coteries and snug brains-trusts!
I am not a Finn, says Mr Coelacanth to himself.
Otherwise I would hale a dragon-boat through
the fogbanks of Dogger and trace the fractal fjords
to my heart’s content. And he settles back, shutters his eyes,
and wanders the dreaming, cobbled, castled, long-halled,
long, hauled, old-strawed, old-strewn alleys of Uppsala,
his sense of geography untainted by the truth.
He is unaware of the halo-flight of bismuth beetles
japanning around his head – so many spies
looking for a landing-place.
From I am not a fish
© 2013 Marie Marshall