As the Sea Gives Up Her Dead by Tim Kiely
A poignant and reflective poem written by Tim Kiely, as inspired by Charles Causley’s work. Read on to discover how Tim explores the process of his poem’s composition and its relationship to ‘Timothy Winters’.
As the Sea Gives Up Her Dead
after Revelation 20:13
A sheet of silent grey – and on the sand
in the foreground, a toddler on his face,
forever stopped. It’s 2015, and
the water washes up no saving grace,
just horror. Can we still hear the water
on that strange beach? That stricken image speaks
to us, brings down the staggered instant where
we saw, sat down, and wept. For a few weeks.
Years pass. More walls go up. The builders dream
of slingshots over continents – “we must
stop all the boats”. The flames creep up, and scream
on scream rings out, undoused. The huddled just
exchange their messages around the vans
that cannot make their catches, stand between
the fires and the fleeing. We make plans;
the sea keeps dashing; thousands drown unseen.
Another morning breaks among the groans
of sea water on stone, our wills perplexed.
We scan the shore and think there might be bones
being brought to life, ready to meet us next.
The Part ‘Timothy Winters’ Played in My Life: the process of my poem’s composition and its relationship to ‘Timothy Winters’.
Charles Causley’s ‘Timothy Winters’, a poem which I first heard read to me in primary school, has never been very far from my mind since then. With a series of boisterous, memorable, child-friendly rhymes and an undercurrent of menace that reveals itself expertly as the poem goes on, it was exactly the kind of poem that would intrigue me as a young boy on the autism spectrum (though I wouldn’t know that for many years). Even before I could articulate it clearly, I had a sense that here was the kind of power poetry had – to stimulate, to enchant, all through the careful choice of words.
Thanks in large part to those memorable rhymes, the poem stayed in my mind as I got older. On every occasion when I returned to it I found it growing layers, revealing more of Causley’s technical skill and the moral force of its central message. In particular I am continually struck by its combination of restraint and galvanising force; by its fierce and unyielding decency, spoken in a quiet voice.
I think it’s safe to say that this has informed a great deal of how my life turned out since then, through secondary school of Amnesty International letter-writing sessions and an eventual career in criminal law. I try to do what I can, alone or with others, to carve out space for a better world. My poems might not have as direct an impact on the world as a case where I get a win for my client, or a successful campaign which I am a part of, but I hope they do something to hold space for those on the journey, and steel them for the struggles to come.
This poem built up over a long period, evolving out of an earlier, much shorter poem written shortly after the body of Alan Kurdi was photographed on a Turkish beach. I was struck, then and now, by how that moment of unspeakable horror opened a brief window onto how our collective, ongoing dehumanisation of migrants led to this kind of carnage, and how in spite of it we continue to be told by our leaders that desperate people fleeing appalling circumstances are, somehow, a threat that we must repel rather than fellow humans deserving of our solidarity.
The poem is, I think, much informed by Causley’s spirit, as well as leaning more towards the tight, formal style and barely-contained outrage that was first impressed on me by ‘Timothy Winters’ (though I think Causley’s poem favoured the slow build more than this one!). I did not go on, later in life, to become someone who believed very much in anything. And yet ‘Timothy Winters’, which ends explicitly with a prayer for a suffering child, did definitely find its way into the explicit Christian references that run through this poem. I hope that a compassionate spirit, and the resolve to work to something better, runs clearly through this poem as much as through its inspiration.