Friday, June 4, 2021

 [This was in the latest edition of Scottish PEN's online magazine: PENning 'Renewals'.]

Hert-Kinnlin
 
She'd hud the wean                                                              had, child
an she pit a photie o him new born
on the social media
fur aa tae admire –                                                                all
an aabody was commentin like                                          everybody
He's gorgeous!
 
But here's me in the back-en o ma life                               autumn
an weans clene oot o ma mind
didnae see ocht in him then                                                anything
but a pink blob like caunle wax –                                       candle
naethin much in yon wee thing avaa.                                at all
 
Six month later
an he’s on ma shouder                                                         shoulder
makin vroom-vroom souns at caurs as they pass,           cars
nine month later
an he's croodlin, singin,
a year later
an he's sprauchlin wi airms ootstrecht for a hug.          moving unsteadily
 
An A wis wrang. Yon wisnae caunle wax                       wrong
but leevin mairble
an the muckle sculptor o the universe                             mighty
hud a haun in him frae the stert                                        hand
or even afore,
cairvin oot a human craitur                                            carving, creature
utterly himsel                                                                    himself
an hert-kinnlin gorgeous richt eneuch.                         heart-kindling, enough


Saturday, March 6, 2021

The Inheritance

Family legend has it that my great-great-grandfather built a mill on this wee burn (photo below) at at Dornock, near Gretna, in 1826, then ran off (to England?) leaving my great-great-grandmother with child. The poem is an editor’s choice in the Hammond House ‘Survival’ competition hammondhousepublishing.com

John A – my forebear,
name-giver, border-crosser
and promise-breaker who abandoned
my great-great-grandmother
and the bastard bairn he gave her –

a fellow of craft it seems
more than virtue. In the records he’s
a millwright. What is it about mills
and wanderlust? – I’ll have that
and a few other odds and ends

worth keeping: thrumming wheel-music,
metre in the slap-slap-slap of paddles,
rhythmic and percussive, down and up,
passion in the gush and leap
of water from the millrace. And maybe

satisfaction of a job well done
and a last look-back
to comprehend every part working
as it should. With money sitting snug
and proudly in his pocket. Moving on.
 

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Shakespeare in Tuonela: towards a translation of Eeva-Liisa Manner’s 'Ofelia'


This year is the centenary year of Eeva-Liisa Manner (1921-1995). Having spent her childhood in Viipuri, she lived most of her adult life in Tampere, and is now considered one of Finland’s most distinguished 20th century poets. In the Finnish-British context it is interesting to look at a poem in which Manner drew inspiration from an English play, namely Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the play it is reported that Ophelia died after falling from a tree overlooking a brook. She aimed to hang garlands of flowers on the branches, but a branch broke. She fell into the water, together with her flowers, and was drowned, making no effort to save herself, and singing all the while. The play contains suggestions that her death was self-willed.

Eeva-Liisa Manner’s ‘Ofelia’[1] (1949, from the collection Kuin tuuli tai pilvi) transforms the Ophelia episode in a marvellous way. The ‘brook’ becomes something deeper, darker and more universal, like a sea separating the living from Tuonela, the land of the dead. Moreover, the verses seem to transform the original Shakespeare into a kind of shaman, one with power to understand the language of animals such as – in this poem – birds and fish. They too are dead, and speak with the tongues of the dead.

Here, as a fanciful aside, I’d speculate that Shakespeare might have been thoroughly at home with the world of the Kalevala, had he come across it. After all, he includes the shamanic figure of Prospero in The Tempest, and incorporates the witch-haunted moors of Scotland into Macbeth[2].

Manner’s ‘Ofelia’ is quite long, but a flavour of it can be had from the extract below, which comes at the end of the poem. To add another layer of magic I chose, as a Scot, to translate the poem into Scots[3] – perhaps infused by the Scottish shamanic spirit of Thomas the Rhymer (seer, rune-sayer) who was given a ‘tongue that can never lie’ and taken to elf-land, a realm beyond heaven or hell, or good and evil. This seems appropriate for the vision of a poet in any century, and Manner’s characterisation of Ophelia’s entry to Tuonela seems to fit this notion very well.

Below you can read the end of the translated poem. There two voices, first of all the shamanic voice of the ‘dead bird’, lulling Ophelia to sleep in the water, to find peace, to be relieved of the burden of life. The final voice is that of Ophelia herself, describing how the daylight, the wind and the sky all fade away. On a literal level the event is tragic, but on the level of emotion it is soothing, like a lullaby[4], and in my opinion extraordinarily beautiful.

Sleep, be done wi dreary days, 
sleep amang the lily blooms,
whaur the watter rocks the flooer –                                 where the water
watter watchin ower the deid,                                           over the dead
ower the drooned that lig asleep.                                      lie
Lat the watter cradle ye,                                                     let
tak awaa yir dreary days,                                                    take away
ease yir burden, cairry it faur.                                           carry it far
Freendly are the fathoms deep,
blessèd the forfochen yins.                                                 weary ones
Lig doon on the watter’s lap,
in the cradle o the waves.

Sleep, sleep ...
Seelence.                                                                                   silence
Quate A gang, aye doun and faurer doun,                      quiet I go, always down, further
wi ma gealt haunds cairryin the bloom                            frozen hands
o the day as it mirkens                                                         darkens
till aathing swees and sinks intae the watter                 everything sways
as the wind saftens                                                               softens
and the lift dwynes awaa.                                                  sky fades

Notes.
1. I’m grateful to Nely Keinanen of Helsinki University for drawing my attention to the poem.
2. The chants of the witches in Macbeth are rare instances of the trochaic ‘Kalevala meter’ in Shakespeare’s plays. 
3. My translation won an award in the 2018 Scots Language Society Competition for translation into Scots. I’d point out that the translation is fairly free, focusing on sound and rhythm rather than word-for-word exactitude of meaning.
4. There are echoes of Aleksis Kivi’s famous lines here: Tuonen lehto, öinen lehto! / Siell’ on hieno hietakehto, / sinnepä lapseni saatan. [Grove of Tuoni, grove of night / There is a fine cradle of sand / There I shall escort my child]


 

Friday, January 1, 2021

1ST JANUARY

After the fireworks, fizz and zoom

the year wakes up

with a new head, arms, legs

and wings and wonders –

What kind of butterfly am I?

Monday, October 5, 2020

Dreich magazine

 A couple of poems in 'Dreich' # 8. Thanks to editor Jack Caradoc and to Chrys Salt for pointing me in the Dreich direction!





Sunday, October 4, 2020

A Lang Wait

My poem ‘A Lang Wait’ was published recently in Scottish PEN online journal (theme ‘Patience’). Here’s me reading it, in Scots with English subtitles.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZMerrImhBU&t=1s&fbclid=IwAR0k7kn-QRmyXRO2-ovuXZQ7Xo2WaYjC0L9O2u9gPMILWxIbGC36dSjqMOM

Here's the original Scots version:

A Lang Wait

Ye micht wait lang
afore fowk – yon's you and me and aa – 
arenae gowkit –

 –  bi thaim as promise jam the morn
(a tax brek, a pun or twae mair pension, oor country's glorious futur)
 – bi thaim as gie us an enemy tae turn oor hate upon
(immigraunts and furriners, Jews, Muslims, aye, and a wee war warks wunners)
 – bi breid and circuses
(think Meghan and Harry, onie celeb ye can nem)
 – bi thaim as awns the media and gie oot fake news for thir ain fell purposes
(the heidlines ony day o the week)
 – bi thaim as haes maistered and refined the cantrips o kings, emperors, warlords and high-heid-yins sin the beginnin o time.

Ye micht wait lang. But keep the faith
for things will chynge for the better –
the lees will be seen throu
and the truth come oot suiner or later.
It's happent afore, it’ll suirly happen again.
It's a lang road – yit wi howp
and mair nor howp – gin ye speik oot

for thaim as cannae speik oot and for thaim
whase vyce is owherwhaulmt
bi the warld’s stramash and scurry-whirry
stour will flee frae the een. Dinnae gie up.
In daurk days aye haud forrit, haud on.