In Breton

In Breton
In Breton, they say
there’s a word that weaves between 
green and blue, allowing for 
haze, precipitation,
the burr of distance,
the welcome shock 
of escaping light 
warming your shoulders.
Ian Stephen

from Oxford Poets 2013, edited by Iain Galbraith and Robyn Marsack (Manchester: Oxford Poets/Carcanet 2013)

Reproduced by permission of the author.
Ian Stephen

A writer, artist and storyteller, Ian Stephen was born in Stornoway in 1955 and still lives on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. He studied English, Drama and Education at Aberdeen University. After 15 years in the coastguard, he became a full-time writer of poetry, prose and drama in 1995. 

He was the inaugural winner of the Christian Salvesen/Robert Louis Stevenson award in 1995, and in 2004, he was the first artist in residence at StAnza, Scotland's annual poetry festival. He was given a Creative Scotland Award (2002-3) to sail through the geography of Scottish maritime stories. He navigated the sea-route, suggested by a traditional story, connecting Sweden and the north of Scotland and the story was sent as instalments by satellite-phone to a computer at the 50th Venice Biennale.

Among his publications are Malin, Hebrides, Minches, with photos by Sam Maynard (Dangaroo Press, Denmark, 1983), Varying States of Grace (Polygon, 1989) and Mackerel & Cremola (pocketbooks, 2001). It's about this (Nomad/ Survivors Press, 2004), from a poem-log of a voyage to Orkney, was commissioned by StAnza. A bilingual edition of his poetry, Adrift / Napospas vlnám, was published in Czech in 2007. Poems written during the 2011 Cape farewell voyage to St Kilda, the Monachs and Taransay have been published in Oxford Poets 2013 (OxfordPoets).

Read more about this poet
About In Breton

This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2013. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2013 was David Robinson.

Editor’s comment:

A summation of what poetry is and does in eight short lines? In Breton, Stephen assures us, there is one word whose meaning encompasses …  and he then provides a series of adjectives that normally sit next to each other with varying degrees of uneasiness. Robert Frost famously said that poetry is what gets lost in translation: what Stephen is doing here is to comically attempt to show that he was wrong. He succeeds succinctly and in a way that left me smiling at his cheek – for, remember, his whole poem was just about one Breton word …

Author's note:

In 1997, I travelled from Inverness to Brest by train and then joined a group of writers from Scottish islands. We were shuttled across to Ouessant, to attend a literature Festival which had a Scottish theme that year. I often keep a log of a journey whether by land or sea. This poem was one of a series, jotted like drawings from impressions along the way. The following year I navigated a small yacht past the Atlantic side of Ouessant. So the same terrain was considered from two different perspectives although visibility was poor as we sailed by, about ten miles out. My poems often seem to consider what you cannot see or only partly see. Often they place something imagined close to something specific and tangible. I don’t think this one has changed much from when I jotted down the essence of a conversation on Isle d’Ouessant.