In Oils


Between fjords and the Firth, the rig whirred
from its crown-block to the pit of its possum belly –
my father left at dawn to work the offshore fields.
He mixed with roughnecks and a crude-talking toolpusher:
their toil lit the flarestack, sparked fuses, stoked motors.
Farther north, the trickle and tick of ice floes.

That year’s gales uprooted dunes, hurled gulls
along Union Street; the derrick braced its anchors,
strained against the storm-surge.
                                                        His chair sat empty.
The desk paperweight: a drop of Brent crude
globed in glass, the tarry slick levelling as I tilted it.
I tried to pray for breezes to ferry him home,
but all I could invoke were fields of North Sea oil:
Magnus, Beatrice, Loyal.


I was nine, when my father made me leave –
he drilled an emirate with straight-ruled borders.
The heat on the runway like the breath of a foundry.
My Narnia books arrived after their voyage
along the Suez Canal, in the sea-freight.
Wearing shorts was forbidden – even for men.

Mirage city, under the warp-shimmer of fifty degrees.
Sun-beaten metal. Lightstruck glass,
the bombed-out bridge to Bubiyan Island.
At the sandstone ridge on the edge of Iraq,
herdsmen turned camels loose to trigger landmines.

At school, they preached that oil was fossil light:
one barrelful did twelve years’ human work.
Dad’s friends talked Bonny Light, Brent Blend,
Sour Heavy Crude, counting days in gallons.
Oil was refined, but its temper had a flash-point –


I’d listen from the landing:

“They kicked down the door
of the neighbours’ shop,
then bullets started shattering the windows.
Khalid and I ran.
We saw tanks lumbering down Gulf Street.

They stole everything – air conditioners, cigarettes –
then torched the ground floor.
My cousin shot at the police station they’d seized.
They tore out his eyes.”

“The burning pipeline howled –
Sara said like a jet engine.
Fire-trenches and oil-lakes under a sky dark at midday.
Six million barrels of light, sweet crude…”

“I watched birds wading in the slick-ponds.
There was a hoopoe drinking petroleum,
an oiled eagle panting for water.”

“Airstrike on the Basra road:
the man clawed at the windscreen,
trying to smash free before the petrol tank blew.
An American camera blinked at his burnt out sockets.”


From Anchorage, Calgary, Houston or Galveston,
my father returned, jet-lagged and running fumes,
to plant English lavender on Texan time.
His shirts would smell of earth and gasoline.
I’d see him at the sink, scrubbing his hands:
“I’ve fixed the engine!” He’d show his palms –
I watched him scouring skin that wouldn’t come clean.

A two-stroke heart has steely valves and chambers,
a trace that falters. He said he’d hike the path
above the falls, but dusk could not bring him home –
The spring after we buried him, I heaped his books
in a rusty petrol-drum, and flicked the match. A pyre
for Goodbye to All That, Fire in the Night and Pioneer.