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Octogenarian Skye crofter outside his cottage, Scotland.      Date: late 19th century
The Old Whaler, Jonah


Was it vindictiveness? Did the old prophet’s past

come back to haunt him, making him take to lug

and spear and venture out again to those waters?

Or did he find an old friend beached, the bulk

that kept him safe so long, now as deadly as any harpoon,

and watch as he was stripped down till all that was left

were bones like words without the freight of meaning?

No one knew, but sure enough when I went down

to the white house stubbornly facing the sea, where all

the others turn their backs against the gales, there

propped against the door was a tusk of bone twice

a man’s height, moss creeping up its whale-grey length.

And through the windows I counted six vertebrae

littering his room. I was afraid. But come

to ask him for his blessing I could hardly turn back

and leave my guests to watch their food go cold,

so I knocked and waited. And still waited,

but eventually he came, the famous mass of hair

crowned now by a fist of pale skin above a squint.

Of course, I wanted to ask about the bones,

and whether it was true he’d taken each block of flesh

and roasted it over an open fire. But still I was afraid,

so I stuck to my task, and asked him for my favour.

When he spoke I did hear thunder, and when he raised

his arms, the sea gathered itself once more, the wind howled

and I could see the old man hadn’t lost his touch.


He waved me off with bony hands worn smooth

from truth-telling, a smile back on his face.

What does a retired prophet do? Go mad, with dreams

that no one needs but he cannot stop? I turned and ran.



© Matt Barnard

Picture 10693385, unattributed photograph, late 19th century



Matt Barnard is a poet and writer. His collection, Anatomy of a Whale, was published in 2018 by The Onslaught Press, and he has won the Poetry Society’s Hamish Canham Prize and the Ink Tears national short story competition. Matt edits British Life in Poetry, which promotes poetry in the UK by posting a weekly poem by a contemporary author writing in English. He also edited the anthology Poems for the NHS, published by the Onslaught Press. His website is at