Sunday 1 January 2017

Happy New Year

 The Year of the Whale
The old go, one by one, like guttered flames.
    This past winter
        Tammag the bee-man has taken his cold blank mask
             To the honeycomb under the hill,
   Corston who ploughed out the moor 
        Unyoked and gone; and I ask,
    Is Heddle lame, that in youth could dance and saunter 
        A way to the chastest bed?
The kirkyard is full of their names
              Chiselled in stone. Only myself and Yule
                  In the ale-house now, speak of the great whale year. 

This one and that provoked the taurine waves
    With an arrogant pass,
        Or probing deep through the snow-burdened hill
           Resurrected his flock,
                Or passed from fiddles to ditch
        By way of the quart and the gill,
    All night lay tranced with corn, but stirred to face
                     The brutal stations of bread;
While those who tended their lives
        Like sacred lamps, chary of oil and wick,
            Died in the fury of one careless match.

Off Scabra Head the lookout sighted a school 
    At the first light.
        A meagre year it was, limpets and crows
            And brief mottled grain.
               Everything that could float 
        Circled the school. Ploughs
    Wounded those wallowing lumps of thunder and night.
                The women crouched and prayed.
Then whale by whale 
        Blundering on the rock with its red stain
           Crammed our winter cupboards with oil and meat. 

George Mackay Brown
from The Year of the Whale (Chatto & Windus, 1965), and included in The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown (John Murray, 2005)
[from the Scottish Poetry Library here]

Joseph Pearce provides apposite commentary:
Rejecting the illusion of progress, which he believed would be “choked at last in its own too much”, George Mackay Brown wrote works of rare beauty in which the rootedness of place is seen as the wellspring of true culture. A native of the Orkney Islands who seldom left their shores, Brown drew on their rich history and ruggedly isolated terrain for much of his work.
In Brown’s poetry and prose, the soil and the soul are in mystical communion, the bread and the breath, shining forth the enduring glory of God in the midst of all that is mortal and mutable.


There is much that I'd like to say at the beginning of this New Year and will no doubt say some of it as the year goes on. But for the moment, I'll leave it at this reminder of permanent things, together with a plea that as Catholics and Scots (or whatever) we do not lose sight of them in the unavoidable yet dangerous seduction of chatter.