Tuesday, June 05, 2007

More about George Mackay Brown

It should not be obligatory for poets to celebrate, as best they can, only the greyness of contemporary life. Some of the poems in this book are swatches cut from here and there in the one weave of time. —GMB, in his Introduction to Winterfold, 1976

With this comment, GMB announces his ongoing project of writing about Orkney history, the history of Vikings and Earls, tinkers and wandering bards, both ancient and contemporary. Many of his writings are set in the past. Winterfold contains poems told in the voices of long-dead voyagers to the islands, and there is also a sequence about Earl Rognvald, who led a group of Norse crusaders in 1151. In his magnificent novel, Magnus, GMB tells the story of the life and death of the Earl Magnus, who later became St. Magnus of Kirkwall, in Orkney. GMB often moves back and forth in time, with the result that many of his poems become timeless, transcending local concerns to express something universal, endless, and eternal. Part of his appeal to me is this mythic, archetypal character in his writing.

For example, from The Sea: Four Elegies in Winterfold, GMB provides this magnificent sense of the passages at the end of life. This poem has been a favorite of mine for 30 years, and it deals with the passage of death better than almost any other contemporary poetry:

The Door of Water

Think of death, how it has many doors.
A child enters the Dove Door
And leaves a small wonderment behind him.
For soldiers and airmen there is the Door of Fire.
Most of us, with inadequate heart or lung or artery,
Disappear through the simple Door of the Skull.
There is the Door of the Sheaf: the granary is beyond.
The very old enter, stooping,
Harvesters under a load of tranquil sorrows.
For islanders, the Door of Water.
Beyond a lintel carved with beautiful names
The sea yields to the bone, at last, a meaning.

Seamus Heaney once wrote the following about GMB, which I think is very true, and speaks of the elements that combine together to make him an ancient/modern poet: . . . he transforms everything by passing it through the eye of the needle of Orkney. His sense of the world an his way with words are powerfully at one with each other. His vision has something of the skaldic poet's consciousness of inevitable ordeal, something of the haiku master's susceptability to the delicate and momentary, and since the beginning of his career he has added uniquely and steadfastly to the riches of poetry in English.

The skald and the haiku master meeting on common ground: I find these elements in my own poetic choices, marked by my Norse and Irish ancestry coupled with my affinity for Asian poetic values, having spent the earliest part of my childhood in Asia. So GMB appeals to me because he encompasses not only deep time but also space across cultures. His poetry is both geologic and aware of the world's events; the suffering and sorrows of life, and the fact that we who suffer can still stop and stare, enraptured by a sky full of clouds, a sea full of life leaping onto the sharp black boulders of the near shore, a simple flower in an empty field.

Here is another small poem of mine, also given to the memory of George Mackay Brown:

Rose Runes

Inside that rose window
so carefully assembled in the east wall:
a labyrinth of light.

At high morning,
see it etched on the cathedral floor,
a road of blue, red, gold, a flowering field.

At midnight, the rose-trail flickers
with light from a thousand candles, the church
a kindling tinderbox for All Souls’.

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