See – a green breast in a green field, aureola
sandy-rimmed, the nipple leaking a pale trail
to hidden chambers where, on dank dark walls,
the straight-branched runes of intrepid Vikings
recorded births and deaths, the passing of days;
inscribed their conquests; totted up the loot;
revealed, in this treeless place, a month’s mind
for the forests and fjords of home; lamented
the abandonment of sweethearts and family
for so much squalling wildness where, when
the dragon boats moved on, their tongue
took root and sprouted from invaded soil
green words for Father, Daughter, Bread.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2008. 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 editors in 2008 were Rosemary Goring and Alan Taylor.
Orkney has long been an inspiration for poets, long before even George Mackay Brown arrived on the scene. Dilys Rose’s poem is a paean to the fabled chambered cairn, thought to date back to 2800 BC, which in the 12th century was broken into and inhabited by the Vikings who covered the walls in runes. This is the moment evoked by Rose, who vividly and unconventionally imagines what it must have been like to one of those itinerant marauders.
1. The day I went to Maeshowe was grey and rainy. I was glad to get inside. The neolithic chambered cairn and its twelfth century Viking runes were impressive but when I re-emerged what struck me was how well-concealed it was. I bought a postcard – an aerial view – wrote it, addressed it, stuck on a stamp but never sent it.
The postcard lay in my desk drawer for some years. During tidy fits, I’d rediscover it, look at it, put it back in the drawer until one day the phrase ‘a green breast in a green field’ took a walk and ended up as a fairly long sentence. But there’s more to it. I remembered a friend mentioning that Old Norse had given us father (fadir), daughter (dóttir) and bread, (braud) – three essential words. I heard the click of key turning the lock.
2. month’s mind means a longing for one’s ancestors or times past. It is also the title of a piano piece by John Ireland which I played as a teenager. I found it difficult and sad: just the sort of thing I was drawn to at that age. The phrase stayed with me, dormant, a soft mnemonic of itself, until this poem woke it up.
3. Before writing this commentary I searched my desk drawer. No postcard.