Sunday, October 17, 2010

George Mackay Brown: The Poet's Year

The Poet's Year

He can make his mouth shine—
Drops from a gray nail of ice

His silences
Are like the first cold root stirrings

His verse a trumpet in March
To widen the sun circles

Children come in a dance to his images:
Daffodil, lamb, lark

He wears the lyric coat
Cut from blue bales of sea and sky

He has knowledge of furrows
Beyond the ploughmen

Can thrift sing, can herring?
He tongues their pink and silver silences

Sweeter than beeplunder, oozing,
The fairground fiddle

He knows the horncall, near sunset
For Hesper and Orion

He goes by stubble fields
Tongue rich with shadows

He graves names of the dead
Deeper than kirkyard stones

What now, midwinter bellmouth?
Christus natus est

—George Mackay Brown, from Travellers

Happy birthday once again to one of my favorite poets, George Mackay Brown. This poem from 1986 was published posthumously in 2001, in Travellers (London: John Murray).

I love this poem for its haiku-like structure, its brief stanzas that give one or two essential images per stanza. It follows a format that Mackay Brown often used, what he called a calendar poem: one stanza per month, based on observations of the land, the people, the changing of the seasons, the important festivals that mark the turning wheel of the year. Some calendar poems follow individual persons through the year, others are more general, like this one. Some of his calendar poems are among his longest poems, with many sections marked by calendar time.

Here's another poem, from 1985, which speaks to me at this time of year: harvest, the Day of the Dead, the rounding cycle of seasons, the time of year when the walls between the worlds thin and we are close to the passage of time, of our own mortality. This poem also speaks of Orkney, the islands where the poet was rooted, born, lived, died, and is well remembered.

The Friend

Stone, tree, star, fish, animal, man,
All gathered
Within one circle of light and fire.
And think in Orkney
Of the old friendship of stone and man,
How they honoured and served each other.
The fire on the hearth, blue tremblings
Of water in well and wall-niche,
The stone bed,
The stones that children enchant on the shore
To ship or castle,
Querns that ground corn,
The Book of the Dead—
Stone pages, celebrations in the kirkyard.

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