A poem for George Mackay Brown
One of my favorite contemporary poets is George Mackay Brown, poet of the Orkney Islands. In his work the Celtic and Norse mingled, and produced a modern bard. His shorter poems are often haiku-like in their observations of the interplay between people and their world—always the islander's world, where a plowman one day will be a fisherman the next.
Many of his poems mark time as the turning cycles of the agricultural or religious years. They are calendar-poems: lists of days, weeks, months, years. Time is always changing things, even as the land endures. Many lists appear in his poems, but they are essential lists: that is, lists of essences. There is nothing superficial or arbitrary about them; nothing listed is something other than what we need to survive.
In some ways, GMB was a poet's poet: someone whose writings are beloved more by those who appreciate great writing than by the average reader. I first discovered his poems almost 30 years ago, and have sought them out ever since, as well as his non-fiction books, novels, and short stories. I have as many of his books as are available in the US, plus some others. I go back to them periodically, to refresh myself with the cold sea winds that move across the islands, and the dark mysteries found at midnight in the circles of standing stones.
This is one of GMB's best-known poems, and the last line sums up what poets do better than almost any other such statement I've ever read:
Therefore he no more troubled the pool of silence
But put on mask and cloak,
Strung a guitar
And moved among the folk.
Dancing they cried,
'Ah, how our sober islands
Are gay again, since this blind lyrical tramp
Invaded the Fair.'
Under the last dead lamp
When all the dancers and masks had gone inside
His cold stare
Returned to its true task, the interrogation of silence.
The interrogation of silence. That's why we hear so much of the land, the gulls, the rocks, and time itself, in his poetry. It is not poetry about the poet, but a bard giving the news of the land, the greater world, and those universal forces that will speak through no one else, and whose words are surrounded by vast silences.
Another GMB poem is a different sort of ars poetica:
A Work for Poets
To have carved on the days of our vanity
Also a few marks
From an ancient forgotten time
A child may read
That not far from the stone
Might open for wayfarers
Here is a work for poets—
Carve the runes
Then be content with silence.
Again we end with silence. One of the things I most identify with in GMB's poetry is his sense of elemental realities that are both inpersonal and transpersonal. The cares and sorrows of human life are readily found throughout his writings—he battled with melancholia his whole life—but they are mythic, they are universal, the universal found and bound within the particular, and they are also more-than-human. Anyone who feels weighed down by poetry's long-running obsession with the confessional lyric can find a bracing, alternative vision of poetry in GMB's words.
Many people have discovered GMB's words through his frequent collaboration with composer Peter Maxwell Davies. That is how I discovered him myself, through a song cycle for mezzo-soprano and guitar, Dark Angels. Numerous recordings of Davies' settings of GMB's texts are available.
So, here is the poem I wrote in tribute to GMB, not long before his death in 1996. It was inspired in part by Maeshowe, a Neolithic cairn in Orkney, which GMB has also written about, among numerous others.
(for George Mackay Brown)
The darkness is a hole in the mind,
a place where gravedwellers
carve dark runes in darker stone.
Words filled with the light
What we take for the journey
is little enough: a flint,
a small lamp, six blades, no map.
have travelled further
than any living man.
Leave a few words
to the silence,
Back to the daylight, the fields,
the plow, the ships that plow the waves.
Leave the darkness
to the hot sleep