In the latter part of June this year, I traveled with a close friend to Scotland. We landed in Glasgow, drove north to Aberdeen, and took the fourteen-hour ferry ride to the Shetland Islands. We debarked and drove to the northern most point of the British Isles to explore Hermaness Nature Preserve where we could look off the coast into the North Sea to Muckle Flugga and the lighthouse that Robert Louis Stevenson built with his father. We were fortunate to have landed there on the summer solstice, a glorious sunny day, and fortunate to have our wool hats and gloves with us, both of which were needed.
After another day or two of exploring the wildness of the Shetland Islands (more Norse than Scottish), we headed south again; the exploits we had during our time on the Shetlands will eventually be transformed into poems some day. But the Orkney Islands, a six-hour ferry ride south of Lerwick, Shetland, is what has inspired me first with its rich history of Neolithic sites that are mysterious and beautiful. If you don’t believe in eternity, seek out Orkney.
For this week’s post, I have also included a you-tube video that consists of my reading of the poem set to my photographs.
Ring Of Brodgar
We traveled five days and nights
not knowing where we were going,
and even when we drove into the lowlands
cupped by those soft hills
that caressed both clouds and shore,
and eased our way across the isthmus
with the salt water Loch of Stenness
a few feet to our left and the freshwater
Loch of Harray, a few feet to our right,
we were blind.
On foot we climbed
into the Ring of Brodgar
as though it were just another mark
on the map to tap in front of our friends’
noses after our arrival home.
We were not prepared for sanctity,
didn’t know that the weight of the cosmos,
or the collapse of time,
or the compression of space
was held – somehow – within
this wall-less cathedral. Ancient
stones reared up in front of us,
lichen-splotted, pock-marked, gallant.
Others, time had eroded into wraiths
of their solid pasts. Half of one
lay at its own feet, split in two
by lightening, as we had been.
We walked around the circle,
separating from each other,
needing the space between us
in order to not fall
to our knees,
in order to carry the weight
of all that emptiness.
Today’s discussion is a bit shorter than usual due to the time it took this week to learn how to make an ivideo on my computer and upload it to youtube. I have a new appreciation for cinematographers.
Tone is the attitude towards a subject expressed through image, rhythm, verbs, syntax, and word choice. In the poem, “Ring of Brodgar” the tone isn’t really the one I intended. (For a thorough discussion of tone and author’s intention, see Donald Hall‘s chapter, “Tone, with a Note on Intentions” in his book To Read a Poem). When I visited the Ring of Brodgar, I was in awe of it, amazed by its antiquity and mysterious aura; that is what I intended to convey in my poem. While perhaps this comes through somewhat, the overarching tone of the poem is uncertainty and loss.
The feeling of uncertainty is straightforwardly revealed in the second line: “not knowing where we were going.” This speaks to where we were going literally on the trip, but takes on another meaning with the content of the rest of the poem. Where are any of us going? Uncertainly continues. Driving across the isthmus just a few feet wide isn’t exactly the easiest of routes to maneuver, despite the soft comforting hills around us. Adding to the tone are the phrases, “We were blind,” “we were not prepared,” and “wraiths of their solid pasts.” These phrases also create suspense until we have the lightening strike and the revelation that it isn’t only the stones that have been struck, but the “we” in the poem as well. Here the poem shifts to a tone of great loss, emphasized by the physical separation of the characters in the poem as they explore the monument, and the image of falling to one’s knees (in prayer? due to too heavy a burden?). In the last two lines, the combination of weight and emptiness echoes both the gravity of the uncertainty in life and the space found between the standing stones, between centuries, between lives.
As mentioned, this was not the tone I set out to convey. But it is much closer to the truth.