Saturday 6 January 2024

One Long Poem by Bruce Hunter

 



The Rooks in the Sycamores at the Tomb at Dunn

(for Don Coles)

Thirty years hence heim again with the hiderman,

Norse for home and kin. 

I’m always coming home from home.

Green mossy haugh around a Scottish graveyard.

Few trees in the North Country

atop the buried forests of the medieval world. *

Seven shiny rooks roost in the sycamores.

I’m here with my new love and my cousin.

And a mended heart. I’m lucky.

 

Thrall, what the Vikings called their Scottish slaves,

and I suppose I am. Thrall to the flow country,

my obsession, this place, this past.

End and beginning of the family line.

First and last home. Searching for the lost tribe,

our clan. And for clues to who we’ve become.

Around us, blanket bogs and peat cuts.

Spring’s blaze of gorse and blooming heather

along the treeless tracks.

Four hours north of Inverness, now Inbnir Nis.

Gaelic in the language of the Celts.

The longer I’m here, the more unsettled I am.

The namesdropping back and back again.

Caledonia the Romans called this country.

Pictland before Scotland, always windy and wet.

 

In Canada, I’m called settler, European. Here there are many names.

You’re a Pict, my old Irish ophthalmologist O’Brien

gleefully declares, when I told him we’re from Caithness.

I don’t think it was a compliment.

You do know what the name Scotland means, I said.

Irish Celts, doctor. We’re all Celts.

 

And Pict. Pelt-wearing, longhouse dwellers, 

named by the Romans for their painted faces.

Close by, the circular bases of broches,

stone towers of the Celts, shelter against invading tribes.

Standing stones of the Norsemen.

The nearest village Watten, Viking for water. 

My bloodline is a muddy tributary.

 

In the time before, we were Beaker people,*

from the near north down to Sardinia and Sicily, West Africa.

Who are we, someone asks. Who knows, says another.

Does it matter, I wonder. The longer I am here,

the names we hold dear drop away and away again.

Here the ancient past is yesterday. 

The Great War a minute ago….

 

Where we’re from, as far back as I can go:

Caithness, German nes for nose,

Caith for the fierce Scottish wildcat.

Broad-shouldered, large-skulled.

Coloured tortoise shell like a tabby

or black as a jaguar with a white blaze on its temple,

on the family crests of the clans.

Where the North Sea carousels the North Atlantic.

And my great great grandfather’s ship

rode the current to what they called the New World.

No land left here,

only pasture for the lairds’ bloody sheep.

In times of sorrow, we seek out the sacred places;

those we have forgotten, the elders taught.

I brook no sorrow, only the gravitas of the last years.

The end of the line always a beginning.

Most northerly station of British rail; from here it’s all by boat.

So I’m heim again. Over there, Norway,

across the strait, Hoy, Orkney.

Further north, further again, the Shetlands.


Surrounded now by pasture, a low stone wall with a sheep gate,

seven glistening rooks silent, squinting in the sycamores

as they scan the ruins of the Tomb at Dunn.

In this life, we are visitors no matter where we go

on this earth, the headstones remind us.

 

Beyond the Tomb at Dunn

a well-trod path and stile in the wall

led to the old manor house of Anstruther,

My great grandfather’s middle name,

his father’s homage to the landowner.

His grandfather and his father before him, millers

and collectors of monies from tenant farmers.

Tacksman, the gravestones read.

My cousin in name and I banter

over the rookery’s trees, when I ask:

sycamore she says. Maple, I insist.

The red leaf on the flag of our raw new country.

My wife holds up her phone, I looked it up.

It’s a sycamore maple, she says, You’re both right.


The tomb’s open now, pillaged.

The plank lid torn off and left where it landed.

Vines cover the chapel’s window-less walls.

The roof long ago gone, hollow slots for its timbers.

We step, step, seven steps down

through the floors of the medieval forest

into an ancient silence and an empty tomb.

The stonemason’s stacked shale wall intact,

unlike the nearby family crofts ruined and rubbled.

There is a plastic shopping bag in one corner.

Someone brought food here once.

My wife squats on the earthen floor,

turns her camera towards the pale sunlight on the stairs.

She too is fearless in her search for the northern light.

Her roots cut out at Auschwitz.* 

 

Out in the open air, between the rows of stones,

my cousin points to our common name:

Begg, in Gaelic means small,

and round, she quips. Which we are, I laugh.

Four sets of grandparents, some from the 1700s.

And there’s an alder sapling between their graves.

Seeds from the ancient forest brought up by gravediggers.

One day the alder will crack the stone.

Trees stronger than stone in their kinetic lift.

 

I know this now, but years ago,

a younger man fierce with young love,

I didn’t, and cut it down in a blinding Scottish gale

scraped the moss that covered the names

with my buck knife I left behind this trip.

I’m travelling lighter now.

Know there is a will in the trees

and in us to reach the light.

Years ago, I was gardener in a cemetery,

watched the buckeyes climb green

and strong from bone as they do here.

At night ravenous slugs cover the gravestones,

creatures of the primordial sea from which we emerged.

I’m no longer afraid of the dark

when the light gets in my eyes.

Accidental seedlings from the medieval forest

upearthed and replanted by gravediggers,

gardeners of the near nether world.

I see now the sun-spackled limb,

of my grandmother four times beyond.

listen to the alders, I misheard as a deaf child,

before I realized it was elders, but it was too late.

 

I listen always to the alders, our elders.

See in them the faces of the hiderman

reflected in the mist-covered leaves.

My heathen boots soaked from the wet grass

and I see the green-leafed fingers.

Not waving, not drowning, but beckoning to the light *

from which we came. The grit of a distant falling star,

and when we return to the earth,

our bones grist to the trees,

and if I have but one wish:

I be that tree,

stronger than stone in its lift.

And that, friends, is the gist.

 

*Don Coles (1927 -2017) was a Canadian poet who won the 1993 Governor General’s Award for English poetry for his collection Forests of the Medieval Word and the Trillium Book Award in 2000 for his collection Kurgan.

*Bell Beaker Culture was a genetically and geographically diverse Neolithic group linked archaeologically by their use of inverted bell drinking vessels. The people migrated from Eurasia to the coasts of Western Europe ranging from the northern U.K. to the south to Italy to West Africa. They were thought to be the builders of Stonehenge.

Stevie Smith’s poem “Not Waving but Drowning" was published in 1957 as part of a collection of the same title. The most famous of Smith's poems, it gives an account of a drowned man whose distressed thrashing in the water had been mistaken for waving.






Bruce Hunter writes poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction. He is also an active editor, speaker, and mentor. In 2023, his most recent bilingual poetry collection, Galestro, was published iby iQdB edizioni n Lecce, Italy, following the release there in 2022 of A Life in Poetry, Poesie scelteda Two O’clock Creek.  In 2021, his memoir essay, “This is the Place I Come to in My Dreams” based on his semi-autobiographical novel and his poetry, was shortlisted for the Alberta Magazine Publishers’ awards for essays. And he is a proud new grandfather of Julian, Lucas, and wee Alice.

Born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Bruce was deafened as an infant and afflicted with low vision much of his adult life.  He grew up in the working-class neighbourhood of Ogden in the shadow of Esso’s Imperial Oil Refinery and now decommissioned Canadian Pacific Railway’s (C.P.R.) Ogden Shops. In his youth, he trained and worked as an arborist.

 

 

 

 


 

 


1 comment:

  1. Absolutely beautiful poem that gets even better with each reading.

    ReplyDelete

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