Not one of us will live forever -
the world is far too beautiful for that.
When my children ask about the War, I'll say:
'I once watched as columns of retreating cloud
burned in a haar of gulls and dust, off Yesnaby;
and I survived.'
Yesnaby ~ John Glenday
I had found this poem, one of a sequence of several about Orkney, in a collection entitled Grain by John Glenday and published by Picador.
I've taken the picture at that angle in the hope that you can tell that this book has the sort of cover that immediately makes me want to do this...
Grain is one of those slim collections that has been on and off the shelf since it arrived in 2009, and contains far more to make me think than I would have deemed possible, and it seemed appropriate to share this poem on this Remembrance weekend. The Tinker and I headed for Yesnaby Head while we were on Orkney last month just so that we could experience it for ourselves.
The Tinker sat in the car looking out to sea and reading his Kindle while I trekked off along the cliff top path, and it was only on looking back that I felt quite relieved that I had put the handbrake on...
...yes..I had hadn't I??
It is as if the island is lurching headlong into the ocean, the tilt and slope almost seems to move as you watch it. Geology laid bare before my eyes, and on such a grand scale as this, never fails to impress, and the interesting thing is that, though at opposite ends of the country, Devon and Orkney seem to be made of the same stuff. Devonian Red Sandstone both, with those good old metamorphic pleats and folds and creases that make our coastlines so exciting and so dramatic.
Calm on the day of our visit, but Yesnaby would be the place to head if a storm was brewing to see it looking like this...
I was entranced by another of John Glenday's poems, this one entitled Noust.
Noust in the grass
grass in the wind
wind on the lark
lark for the sun
Sun through the sea
sea in the heart
heart in the noust
nothing is lost
A Noust, the notes explain, is a place of shelter, either natural or man made, where a boat may be hauled out in bad weather, and I think this must have been the famous Yesnaby Noust that I came upon as I walked around the cliff path...
Now had I been a wild swimmer with cossie, towel and flask of tea to hand I might have been tempted because it looked calm and almost inviting (only 'almost'.)
Whilst in the Orcadian Bookshop in Kirkwall it had been obvious that I couldn't get out of the door without buying something by George Mackay Brown for my collection, and I had eventually settled on Northern Lights. Incidentally, for those who have shelves devoid of anything by dearest George this would make the perfect sampler, a mix of essays, newspaper columns and poems by this most famous son of Orkney.
There is a lovely piece entitled Yesnaby in Spring, where a chance encounter with an old friend sees George and Willie heading out to Yesnaby on a motorbike and side-car, eventually parking up between those same two towers where I had parked the Tinker.
'The sea and the land are hopelessly entangled here. Strong-based headlands jut capriciously out into the Atlantic, which pokes long fingers far inland. Rock and ocean are at perpetual warfare, or else celebrating together in a kind of wild joy...'
The sea and the rocks do battle and the pair watch for a while before walking around, as I did, to the Noust..
'In the Noust the sounds of battle were hushed ...'
and George goes on to mention the painting by Orkney artist Stanley Cursiter, which we saw the next day in Stromness Museum, of two fishermen, Linklater and Greig, heading into Yesnaby Noust. Willie, George's companion that day was Linklater's grandson.
And finally, rounding up our trip to Yesnaby today, John Glenday again and A Westray Prayer, (Westray one of Orkney's small islands) I keep saying it to people... Orkney is not exactly charming, nor is it quaint, but it has an extraordinary beauty and John Glenday seems to sum up the unanswerable mysteries and the attraction of these islands to perfection, I will be forever grateful that the Tinker took us there and that I keep discovering poems that say why I love it so much...
Let us now give thanks
for these salt-blown
where oatgrass and timothy
shrink from the harrow of the sea
where Scotland at long last
wearies of muttering its own name
where we may begin
to believe what we have always known
what someone in wisdom
must have meant
when he gave us everything
and told us nothing.
Thank you so much to whoever shared the Orkney poem by Andrew Greig in comments here a while back, I am on that case now too.