I first met the work of the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) through the short stories in ‘A Calendar of Love’, and for a while assumed that he was a prose writer who dabbled in poetry, till I realised that this was as unjust as seeing him as a poet who tried his hand at prose: the work is seamless and stamped in both forms by strong individuality and a kind of elemental clarity. As in this poem in memory of his father, that both celebrates and transcends the particulars of his Orkney life.
‘Cuithe-hung’ refers to the practice of hanging cuithe, a kind of fish, round the doors of houses to dry: they took on a woody texture and gave off a kind of phosphorescence.
My father passed with his penny letters
Through closes opening and shutting like legends
When barbarous with gulls
Hamnavoe’s morning broke
On the salt and tar steps. Herring boats,
Puffing red sails, the tillers
Of cold horizons, leaned
Down the gull-gaunt tide
And threw dark nets on sudden silver harvests.
A stallion at the sweet fountain
Dredged water, and touched
Fire from steel-kissed cobbles.
Hard on noon four bearded merchants
Past the pipe-spitting pier-head strolled,
Holy with greed, chanting
Their slow grave jargon.
A tinker keened like a tartan gull
At cuithe-hung doors. A crofter lass
Trudged through the lavish dung
In a dream of cornstalks and milk.
In ‘The Arctic Whaler’ three blue elbows fell,
Regular as waves, from beards spumy with porter,
Till the amber day ebbed out
To its black dregs.
The boats drove furrows homeward, like ploughmen
In blizzards of gulls. Gaelic fisher girls
Flashed knife and dirge
Over drifts of herring,
And boys with penny wands lured gleams
From the tangled veins of the flood. Houses went blind
Up one steep close, for a
Grief by the shrouded nets.
The kirk, in a gale of psalms, went heaving through
A tumult of roofs, freighted for heaven. And lovers
Unblessed by steeples lay under
The buttered bannock of the moon.
He quenched his lantern, leaving the last door.
Because of his gay poverty that kept
My seapink innocence
From the worm and black wind;
And because, under equality’s sun,
All things wear now to a common soiling,
In the fire of images
Gladly I put my hand
To save that day for him.
George Mackay Brown