Tuesday, 2 August 2011

peony moon

i'm happy to say that myself and marion appear in peony moon this week. i've been reading the letters of william maxwell and frank o'connor recently and, i'm sure it's in there, it recounts how if one were to go round to see maxwell for an interview it was pointless taking a dictaphone as it was his habit to type the answers to questions. i like that description and it puts me in mind of this 'interview'. it's nice to be able to sit back and consider for a time, almost like writing a letter and certainly more time friendly than twitter, facebook or any of those other forms that i don't entertain! it was something of a pleasure to do.

in the doing tho i discovered that maxwell lived just around the corner from me when i was living in new york. that i could have passed him in the street, and most likely did, fills me with some non-specific sense of loss, of having missed an opportunity even if, at that age, i most likely wouldn't have taken it.

so when queried on peony moon as to why i hadn't mentioned george mackay brown i was surprised to feel myself experiencing something of the same. the short answer as to why i hadn't mentioned george mackay brown is that the question related to poets and mackay brown is simply a writer whose poetry i'm not that familiar with. the novels yes but, beyond the inscription on his gravestone, not so the poetry.

not so very long ago i was listening sorley maclean and having a bit of difficulty with it so i went to see one of my workmates who was a first language gaelic speaker to ask her what the deal was. oh, she said, he's from skye but not only that he speaks bodach gaelic, old man's gaelic. and there it was that divide not only between me (mangled college lewis gaelic) and my hearrach (harris) speaking colleague but also an age related thing, a language passing and past. out in uig somewhere there's a handwritten text of old gaelic seafaring and boat language, all gone now. apparently it was to be published but there was some shenanigans with the publishers doing what gaelic speakers do, fiddling with it, changing it and that's the last i ever heard of it.

going back to orkney now everything i remember is gone. the trees i planted when i was wee are thirty feet high (an answer to that old trope that trees won't grow - plant some!), the house i lived in is now in a housing estate, the places and names that are so familiar yet strange on my tongue are not the memories i have of them. kirkwall is much like any other wee town, lovelier i'll grant you, but still much the same. it's stromness i like to walk through - the flagstones don't seem to have lost their age, there's no way to unjumble the houses and closes.

i'm guessing mackay brown was still here when i was wee. i can't say i didn't know this, he was writing for the orcadian so i must have read him at some point but i was too young to be reading his novels and even then i was more interested in the sagas. severed heads versus mackay brown would've been no contest!

my own copy of greenvoe is up on the shelf beside where i'm writing this, nearly thirty years old. i take it down, marvel at the cheapness (which wasn't so cheap in the day) open it up and find the inscription inside faded and watermarked into the opposite page. here's a good book for you to read it says. and it's not wrong. where we lived in bruntsfield was still a bit ragged, not what it's become these days and this book was, i imagine, bought in the wee book shop across the street (long since gone, the same place i would buy the copy of lanark that sits beside greenvoe.

i remember being alone in the bruntsfield flat reading it for the first time. what a brilliant book. it wasn't so much what it talked about - even at seventeen i knew that life was done - but the manner in which it did. this was the orkney i remembered, the old geezers down the harbour who were dying out even in my time. i remember, like timmy (tho much later), having to sign for meths! maybe on the smaller islands there was still a life that resembled what mackay brown described but on the mainland change was coming hard.

so that's where it sits, alongside hawkfall, magnus and the sun's net. i don't read them much these days. vanished landscapes are all fine and good except when they're your own. i remember coming up over the hill to kirkwall after years of absence and not recognising the place. not for the worse, you can see where the oil money's gone but as if the world has slipped, become strange.

maybe i'll read it this afternoon, the rain is hosing down and the bike seems just too uncomfortable a proposition, but most likely i won't. these days, as seems to be the way for those of us who read his prose when we were younger, it seems it's his poetry that's emerging in insistent fragments...

(you can get lots of mackay brown info here and hear him reading here)

A Work for Poets

To have carved on the days of our vanity

A sun

A ship

A star

A cornstalk

Also a few marks

From an ancient forgotten time

A child may read

That not far from the stone

A well

Might open for wayfarers

Here is a work for poets -

Carve the runes

Then be content with silence.


Marion McCready said...

I've been reading GMB today "God, am I not dead yet? said Ward, his ear / meeting another dawn" :)

Dominic Rivron said...

I read lots and lots of GMB at one time. For some reason, the books themselves haven't moved on with me. Perhaps I enjoyed them so much I lent them out! (Bye bye, book...)

I first got to know him through the anthology "British Poetry since 1945" ("On Sunday the hawk fell on Bigging...") then through his collaborations with Peter Maxwell Davies, and then his other poetry and novels.

swiss said...

ah yes, the disappearing lent book syndrome!

i've ordered collected poems (much cheapness!)

Danish dog said...

Right, Morgan! Found you via Marion's blog. Good idea to get hold of GMB's collected poems what with you being from the Orkneys!

I'm sure he is a hugely underrated poet. He's certainly my favourite dead poet of all time.

The funny thing is that I hadn't known about you before reading Michelle's blog. In the short extracts from your work I could see some shades of GMB, but what also prompted me to ask about him is my knowledge of Marion's work. When I read her collection I was very much put in mind of GMB (and also Kenneth Steven) because of how her poetics were so deeply allied to both an appreciation of nature and a spiritual sensibility as well as having a magical way with words. And I did tell her that! So like then she has this twin interview with this poet from the Orkneys who seems to very much be in tune with GMB's spirit, and his name doesn't even come up. Well, you can imagine how I must have felt.

When it comes to GMB's prose I can't recommend his two short story collections warmly enough (A Calendar of Love & A Time to Keep). There are some truly magnificent stories among them. And they are so poetically written - an inspiration. In fact I wrote an essay about one of them and got it published:

“A Modern-Day Icarus” in The Shit Creek Review subzine, II, July 2007

It takes some time to get used to his music and rhythms, but WOW!

I've written a wee song in tribute to him which I will publish here. (It's previously unpublished.) I haven't been back to Stromness since 1977 at the age of 15 so it's one immense fabrication, but I checked with the tourist board and they said there was a plaque on what was his house.

The Bard That Sang Stromness

One sunny afternoon in May
I take the ferry boat
from Scrabster to your Hamnavoe,
the place you lived and wrote.
The town is looking pretty in
its light-green, springtime dress;
the skies are blue in tribute to
the bard that sang Stromness.

That’s quite a nice wee plaque they’ve pegged
upon your old abode;
and not that wee, in fact, as I
can read it from the road.
It’s not all that impressive though,
this dreary council house;
it’s funny you were happy to
personify a mouse.

The owl’s inclined to hoot before it flies,
the dog intent on barking till it dies,
the bell designed for ringing.
As bows are meant to shoot a thrilling rain,
and arrows find their mark or fall in vain,
so truth is bent on singing.

There’s mist around the hilltops now,
a drizzle in the town;
I kid myself I sense your ghost,
George Mackay Brown.
You take me down the pier to watch
the seagulls wheeling free,
then lead me through their yammer to
the chuckles of the sea.

The owl’s inclined to hoot before it flies,
the dog intent on barking till it dies,
the bell designed for ringing.
As bows are meant to shoot a thrilling rain,
and arrows find their mark or fall in vain,
so truth is bent on singing.

Danish dog said...

I see you're both keen on Kenneth White. I must say I've had difficulty with him, not only in getting into his poetry, but I took him to task for the way he hammered GMB for being isolationist in a lecture he gave in Stromness (of all places), and I never heard back from him.

Anonymous said...

I found the Collected surprisingly hard going in places. A degree of sameness which I wasn't expecting.

Marion McCready said...

Duncan, I heard Kenneth White read at StAnza a few years back and I can honestly say it was by far the best reading I've ever been to, he was amazing.

Anonymous said...

Marion: I introduced that reading, and I hadn't met him before. After chatting to him in the interval and afterwards I realised how much we had in common. The whole geopoetics thing had passed me by until then - after all I had been a real geologist, hadn't I? But he made sense, and much of it chimed with my Zen practice.

swiss said...

so just in time for the end of night shift the gmb collected pops thru the door. i take on board that impression of saminess colin but at the same time i see something i'm going to enjoy dipping in and out of, particularly the early poems.

i really rather like your description of storminess duncan but, speaking as someone who had too long an absence from the islands, not being back since 1977 - you have to sort that! lol i look forward to a bit more of a detailed read of your icarus essay. i doubt dounby and bakhtin have ever found themselves in the same company!

as for kenneth white, of whom i've been reading a lot lately, i'd say he's best approached lightly, it's easy enough to pick holes in his arguments and, as has been pointed out elsewhere he;s very canny about the ground he chooses, but i can forgive him for that just for a general spirit of joyfulness and 'energy in life'. which'll do for me!

Danish dog said...

Glad you liked the song, Morgan. I'll record it one of these days. And/Or, even better, perhaps perform it for you one day. The students of mine I've inflicted it on tell me it's very melancholic. But they're quite off target. The verses are, in fact, upbeat, but yeah the chorus is, well, what can I say, 'very slow'.

Your "stone and sea" turned up im my letter box yesterday. I've only been able to skim (get it? skim) through it once. And my first impression is somehow a great sense of denseness as well as lightness. That's a very Orkney thing, I think. I intend to delve more closely soon.

swiss said...

hope you enjoy!

Danish dog said...


swiss said...

great song!

Danish dog said...

Glad you like it!