This is a magnificent poem by George Mackay Brown. I think Hamnavoe is the old name for the Orkney Islands; Brown lived in Stromness where the poem is set. The language and imagery are stunning. I am not one for pulling poetry apart, preferring rather to enjoy the turns of phrase via the whole experience, but his use of word gull really caught my eye and called to mind a strong feeling of gulls everywhere there – on land, sea and air. Perhaps one day I will travel north and confirm this.
My father passed with his penny letters
Through closes opening and shutting like legends
When barbarous with gulls
Hamnavoe’s morning broke
On the salt and tar steps. Herring boats,
Puffing red sails, the tillers
Of cold horizons, leaned
Down the gull-gaunt tide
And threw dark nets on sudden silver harvests.
A cart-horse at the sweet fountain
Dredged water, and touched
Fire from steel-kissed cobbles.
Hard on noon four bearded merchants
Past the pipe-spitting pier-head strolled,
Rosy with greed, chanting
Their slow grave jargon.
A tinker keened like a tartan gull
At cuithe-hung doors. The brass
Tongue of the bellman fore-tolled
`Coon concert!’… ‘Cargo of English coal!’…
In the Arctic Whaler three blue elbows fell,
Regular as waves, from beards spumy with porter,
Till the amber day ebbed out
To its black dregs.
The boats drove furrows homeward, like ploughmen
In blizzards of gulls. Gaelic fisher girls
Flashed knife and dirge
Over drifts of herring.
And boys with penny wands lured gleams
From the tangled veins of the flood. Houses went blind
Up one steep close, for a
Grief by the shrouded nets.
The kirk, in a gale of psalms, went heaving through
A tumult of roofs, freighted for heaven. Ploughboy
And milklass tarried under
The buttered bannock of the moon.
He quenched his lantern, leaving the last door.
Because of his gay poverty that kept
My seapink innocence
From the worm and black wind;
And because, under equality’s sun,
All things wear now to a common soiling.
In the fire of images
Gladly I put my hand
To save that day for him.
George Mackay Brown: Selected Poems 1954-1992 (c.) Archie Bevan