Tuesday, 7 July 2009

The Scottish islands with a bit of (poetic) distance

... ok, my timing is often somewhat out of sync. But why not?

I felt really lucky to stumble across the Strawberries just before I left Glasgow. M had sent it to me first last summer along with some more of Edwin Morgan's poems about Glasgow. They are Glasgow just as much - though rather differently - as Eardley's paintings are Glasgow. Funnily enough - though not dissimilar in time, Morgan's Strawberries were maybe written ten years after many of Eardley's paintings - his poems are of a presence while she tries to recapture spirits and experiences of a sense of community that was disappearing.

But... out of the city and up North for today.

Quite a few weeks ago I had been watching some of the programmes of the BBC's poetry season. And made several discoveries. Firstly, obviously, much poetry of which I was utterly clueless. But, almost more significantly: the performance of doing poetry. One was by a young woman about growing up in a London housing scheme. And it was just utterly fabulous in presence. There was also another spoken word artist who was working with primary school children and rhymes, words and sounds as means of expression.... I think if I had someone like that for my German classes of years past, I would have loved them.

The programme I saw and which fascinated me was the one on George Mackay Brown who lived for most of his life in his home town of Stromness on Orkney, and died in the late 1990s. His most famous poem is Hamnavoe - the Norse name for Stromness.

Listen to it on this page of the Poetry Archive.

Hamnavoe by George Mackay Brown

My father passed with his penny letters
Through closes opening and shutting like legends
When barbarous with gulls
Hamnavoe's morning broke

On the salt and tar steps. Herring boats,
Puffing red sails, the tillers
Of cold horizons, leaned
Down the gull-gaunt tide

And threw dark nets on sudden silver harvests.
A stallion at the sweet fountain
Dredged Water, and touched
Fire from steel-kissed cobbles.

Hard on noon four bearded merchants
Past the pipe-spitting pier-head strolled,
Holy with greed, chanting
Their slow grave jargon.

A tinker keened like a tartan gull
At cuithe-hung doors. A crofter lass
Trudged through the lavish dung
In a dream of cornstalks and milk.

In "The Arctic Whaler" three blue elbows fell,
Regular as waves, from beards spumy with porter,
Till the amber day ebbed out
To its black dregs.

The boats drove furrows homeward, like ploughmen
In blizzards of gulls. Gaelic fisher girls
Flashed knife and dirge
Over drifts of herring,

And boys with penny wands lured gleams
From the tangled veins of the flood. Houses went blind
Up one steep close, for a
Grief by the shrouded nets.

The kirk, in a gale of psalms, went heaving through
A tumult of roofs, freighted for heaven. And lovers
Unblessed by steeples, lay under
The buttered bannock of the moon.

He quenched his lantern, leaving the last door.
Because of his gay poverty that kept
My seapink innocence
From the worm and black wind;

And because, under equality's sun,
All things wear now to a common soiling,
In the fire of images
Gladly I put my hand
To save that day for him.

There was an interview with Don Paterson, a contemporary Scottish poet, on the relevance of Mackay Brown. For Paterson, he was so relevant to the current generation of Scottish poets precisely because Mackay Brown offered a way of talking, writing and experiencing nature in a way that was relevant but did not try to appropriate or to own it.

That comment stuck - it resonated with my thought on landscape art as a genre and landscape as a subject of critique. And it also offered a tension to Gabriela Mistral's appropriation of the Chilean landscape for patriotism.

There's no painting to go with this, I'm afraid. But here one of Don Paterson's poems - on the most innermost of the Inner Hebrides, Luing. It's a complex and yet very simple line of thought, I like it.

Again: listen to it here.

Luing by Don Paterson

When the day comes, as the day surely must,
when it is asked of you, and you refuse
to take that lover’s wound again, that cup
of emptiness that is our one completion,

I’d say go here, maybe, to our unsung
innermost isle: Kilda’s antithesis,
yet still with its own tiny stubborn anthem,
its yellow milkwort and its stunted kye.

Leaving the motherland by a two-car raft,
the littlest of the fleet, you cross the minch
to find yourself, if anything, now deeper
in her arms than ever – sharing her breath,

watching the red vans sliding silently
between her hills. In such intimate exile,
who’d believe the burn behind the house
the straitened ocean written on the map?

Here, beside the fordable Atlantic,
reborn into a secret candidacy,
the fontanelles reopen one by one
in the palms, then the breastbone and the brow,

aching at the shearwater’s wail, the rowan
that falls beyond all seasons. One morning
you hover on the threshold, knowing for certain
the first touch of the light will finish you.

What images... gull-gaunt tide, seapink innocence and dreams of cornstalks and milk...

Now... poetry slams... Berlin has some... already seen some posters for it...

But also: landscape painting, round x, fields in oil... all here and in my bag, waiting to be unpacked...

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