Laurence O’Dwyer
Poems from Litløy Fyr

Cover Image - Moonrise, Lofoten

Moonrise, Lofoten, Photo by Laurence O’Dwyer


 Wednesday, 27th April. Nijmegen – Duisberg – Copenhagen – Malmo
 Sunday, 7th May. Litløy Fyr (Maggot Time)
 Friday, 12th May.Litløy Fyr (Engine Failure)
 Friday, 19th May. Litløy Fyr (L’Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre)
 Saturday, 20th May. Litløy Fyr (The Mink and the Outhouse)
 Tuesday, 23rd May. Litløy Fyr (The Old Light)

Wednesday, 27th April. Nijmegen – Duisberg – Copenhagen – Malmo

     Drinking with Malte in the Blaauwe Hand, I tell him how I first came to hear about this place. It was Queen’s Day back then — four years ago to the day. Gold of Malacca, hay from Gelderland. I am telling this story like an old hand of the Dutch East Indies. How I met her by the border, a few small huts.
     I point to a poster of a Laotian girl: Is that the president? No smiles; the police give a final glare, approved by a stamp of the sun. Tomorrow we leave for the jungle. By the time we return I will hear her say: a room; yes, a double bed. The fan goes round. My skin is red. The moon goes up and down. It’s called King’s Day now in the Netherlands.
     Those who worked with cloth could be recognized by the stain of indigo on their fingers. For a year, I avoided the Blaauwe Hand. Only now do I agree to sign the Treaty of Nijmegen.

Sunday, 7th May. Litløy Fyr (Maggot Time)

I woke last night in no man’s light; trudged downstairs to take a piss from the deck. Found everything furred in snow. The roof of the shed suddenly white. The snow that falls into the bay disappears as soon as it touches the water.

Waking for real a few hours later — not a trace of snow! A blue day. Did I dream it?

Just as Maggot Time and trade with the Pomors disappeared, leaving all of Westerålen to wonder the same.

It is the history of Litløy before the lighthouse was built. Some of it remains — hjell are the A-frames on which fish are still dried — the oldest preservation technique in the world. Raw cold wind and bacteria work the cod till each one is as hard as stone. The reeking mass thatches every frame.

No matter how fast they worked in summer there was an overabundance that couldn’t be saved; so Maggot Time set in, with curiously precise dates — July 20th to August 20th.

Of course it was political; a higher power allowed them to trade with the Pomors for that month alone.


Along comes a ship from the White Sea to greet the first day of Maggot Time. Or perhaps you could say it the other way around.

And in the weeks that follow, more ships arrive from the Kola Peninsula and the Solovetsky Monastery. The monks owned dozens of trading ships. There are many feast days in the Orthodox church when only fish can be eaten.

By the banks of the Volga, grain and rye fill the boats that sail first to Archangelsk. A few more links in the chain before the harvest is offloaded onto the quays of Lofoten and Westerålen where there is much shouting in a hybrid tongue — Russenorsk — a dialect that every Norwegian could speak when trading with the Russians. Crude alloy of fish and scales and glue. Perfectly adaptable. Blended like cheap whiskey.


Useful then — this Maggot Time; essential really before winter. But here comes a new century and a revolution; and then one morning it is gone — just as I woke a second time to find that the snow had disappeared. Not a single ship in the bay.

The lighthouse was built in 1912. The last documented trade with the Pomors dates from six years after the lighthouse was complete. But the culture had long since died. The Solovetsky Monastery became a prison, then a gulag; now it is a monastery once again.

So Marx and Lenin find their way to Westerålen via alcohol and fish — depriving the monks of sustenance on feast days, forcing Norwegians to brew alcohol from their own inferior grain.

A red sun drops into the waters of the Volga. I glimpse it through a glass of Lofoten beer.

Friday, 12th May.Litløy Fyr (Engine Failure)

Turn the key, spark the juice. Four wheezing revs.
Engine failure means making friends. Stig leaps
from prow to quay. Yellow overalls, neat little
pockets for lighter and tobacco. He rolls a cigarette.
Do you have jump leads? He cleans the contacts
with tinkering turns. For all the world like a roadie
tuning strings. Little fretwork fireworks spark around
his fingers. The label says ‘4,000 Amps’. He knows
well enough what’s earth, what’s not. Self-taut;
we get the history of Steine while we wait for back-up.
His brother arrives with jump leads and a charger.
Current flows. The needle twitches back to life.

Friday, 19th May. Litløy Fyr (L’Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre)

    Putain! I love this work!

    Just as I’m thinking that I’m sick of sirocco storms of paint and dust, Julien comes out with this. All the glass of the lighthouse is gone; ferried to the mainland last week — a full trailer, loaded with every curved pane and broken shard, every diamond we’ve plucked from the eye of the tower — offloaded at the recycling centre.

The frames are patched with floppy plywood; the lighthouse looks like a one-eyed pirate.

Grey mist shrouds Gaukværøy.

After lunch; it’s my turn to be ferried to the mainland. Once ashore, Max drives me to the medical centre where Bo is about to knock off for the weekend.

Chatty and bumbling — unable to navigate the patient dossier on his computer screen, I point to the tab he’s lost. Photocopied pages are tacked to the wall; the gurney has crumpled tissue paper from the patient before.

I talk a lot, Bo says. Crohn’s disease; yes! Inbreeding has probably led to an unusually high level of Crohn’s disease in this area too.

Hitching back to the pier, Geire picks me up. His voice transports me elsewhere: L’Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre in the Pyrenees.

I had twisted my ankle somewhere high on the Transfrontalier. The sound was like two strings plucked at once; an out-of-tune, upright double bass. I hobbled to the valley floor.

No other self beyond the trails. I had been running for months. Peak to peak; France to Spain and back across a border that was a crest or ridge.

Memory is movement. But now I was a stationary point.

In those first days, my muscles went into spasm — not from injury but from lack of use. The ankle swelled. My quadriceps were a riot of frogs jumping inside a sack.

L’Hospitalet is two streets wide. You can’t see the peaks for the narrowness of the valley. In winter, the apartments are rented. In summer, the ski stores are closed. Pylons rise from a relay station beside the road. Nothing’s changed since I first passed through on the way to Andorra — a child in the back seat of what is now a vintage car.

For days, I didn’t leave the dormitory. I was the only one in the gîte d’étape. The room turned from blue to black; just like my ankle. Lying on the bed, all I could see was a circle of light streaming through a keyhole without a key.

Saturday, 20th May. Litløy Fyr (The Mink and the Outhouse)

    Walking down the steps, Max shouts out:

    Look! There’s Ewan’s shit!

    The sewage pipe is broken.

    It’s a longer walk now to the outhouse over the little pass behind the lighthouse keeper’s house. The FAQ tacked to the wooden door asks:

    What should I do in case of emergency?

    Do not panic! After all you are on a lonely outside toilet on a solitary island which can only be accessed by boat or helicopter.

    I am not panicking — what should I do next?

    Shout for help.

    I’m shouting for help but there is no response.

    The mink might be asleep. Perhaps you should have a short nap too.

Tuesday, 23rd May. Litløy Fyr (The Old Light)

The laser is useless so we build a box to ship it back to Stockholm.
A pallet base, slats of timber. Ewan with a pencil behind his ear.
Max with measuring tape. Julien saws the plywood with a power tool;
always happy to play with something dark and dangerous.
    Sunlight on the steps — just like the old days, working
at the ocean’s edge, except it’s a laser we’re shipping back.
Not barrels of cod or oil. Not fish-heads harvested
from racks. The remnants of old forgotten toil —
winches and looms that don’t work but can’t be thrown away.
The cellar is stooped and squat like a dungeon with shafts
of light through windows that are grimed in spume and salt.
On the shelves are tinctures, sepia bottles, brushes, pallets,
bags of cement, jars of screws, clippers that cannot clip for rust.
The air is always solid cold. The cellar slots into the slope
like a drawer that’s pulled out from under the house.
The foundation of generations who tended this light
at the end of the world. The Pomors traded with the Norwegians
in timber, tar, candles, cooking oil, hemp and rope.
In the history of Litløy there has been no mention until now
of lasers. Max measures. Julien saws. The light is automated —
visible for twelve nautical miles. The old light was visible
for twenty. Centuries dim and are diminished.
It’s funny to make a box, Julien says.

Laurence O’Dwyer holds a PhD in paradigms of memory formation from Trinity College Dublin. His first book of poetry, Tractography (Templar Poetry, 2018), received the Straid Collection Award. It includes his Poems from Haiti (Mudlark Flash No. 66, 2012) and Poems from Lapland (Mudlark Poster No. 140, 2016). In 2018, he was a visiting scholar at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of The Rensing Center (South Carolina). In 2017, he received a fellowship from The MacDowell Colony. In 2016, he won the Patrick Kavanagh Award for Poetry. He has also received a Hennessy New Irish Writing Award. “The Old Light,” the last of the Poems from Litløy Fyr appearing here, has just won the Yeovil Poetry Prize for 2018 in the UK.

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