At midsummer midnight in Stromness I stare
out past some child’s bear perched on the pier,
my father three months dead, you twenty years
or nearly, and neither nigh a toy’s safe harbour.
At MacDiarmid’s bidding word-storms sat on Whalsay
like good dogs by his epic-fuelled hearth;
MacLean’s regret stoked lava-born Raasay
till Gaelic’s stag stared from its molten wreath.
You grew a mountain from the sea’s swung root,
and deepened in your winters that old trench
where tides may race between us till they drench
then made a wreck-oiled island of your book.
MacCaig crofted on two lanes in the capital,
Rose Street for barley rig and Leamington for peat;
Graham from his Cornish caravan saw all
the canvas and the tin-tack waves he’d need.
A few treeless meadows awaited your text
amid the overtones of Rackwick where next
to scriptory herds, you sermonised to shoals
how poetry’s an archipelago of souls:
While Crichton Smith found Murdo’s maddened dance
in Callanish’s storm-rewritten stance;
and Morgan, orbiting in Anniesland,
hung out a banner all Earth might understand.
This much more than anyone you could tell
how the pen’s tooth gnaws at age’s keel
till the ferried whispers slow their reel
and strand us on a skerry of the self.
So why did I take so long to reach the island
these hailed as verse’s haven? Because grief’s gale
that gulls and claws us all until we fail
can in its random grace then drive us to dry land.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2021. 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 for 2021 was Hugh McMillan.
Beautifully structured poem here from a volume celebrating the centenary of George Mackay Brown. In this piece Herbert manages to include a gazetteer of Scotland’s major poets of the time, each on his own home ground, each with his own arresting image eg ‘MacDiarmid’s word-storm sat in Whalsay like good dogs….’. This poet has aye been renowned for his striking word play, playful and serious, and to achieve this in a poem which combines in a highly controlled form a commemoration of a dead poet and a lost father is quite an achievement.
Some poems sit for years awaiting something to quicken them. I’d sic a piece contrasting the orbits MacDiarmid and Mackay Brown’s generation still complete like planets with his mair stationary space. Partly this was not knowing Orkney, which I only visited after my father’s death, when I did the St Magnus residency. I dashed from a degree ceremony at Dundee Uni forgetting cash or cards. At Aiberdeen I begged a lift to the airport, and at Kirkwall an advance on my fee. Somehow my moneyless condition was appropriately pilgrimesque, especially at Midsummer. I was sick with grief, daunnering along Stromness’s lang street in the gloaming, when I met a teddy bear sat peering over the water. The bear and I had ane o thae chats, which clarified that GMB was aye the still point in a hellicat world, and ane or the ither o us finished the poem.