Sunday, May 24, 2009

Kirkyard by George Mackay Brown

There was an excellent programme on George Mackay Brown on BBC4 this week (UK readers, check it on i-Player) which really brought him to life. This is a deceptively fine poem, I think. Very simple, almost naive, especially the first stanza, but it gradually reveals a depth of emotion and says something quite beautiful at the end.


A silent conquering army,
The island dead,
Column on column, each with a stone banner
Raised over his head.

A green wave full of fish
Drifted far
In wavering westering ebb-drawn shoals beyond
Sinker or star.

A labyrinth of celled
And waxen pain.
Yet I come to the honeycomb often, to sip the finished
Fragrance of men.

I don't know a lot about George Mackay Brown (or any poets, for that matter) but it seems to me this is typical of his work, in the way it conflates the living and the dead, the past and the present, and also in the way it draws in the landscape and the work - fishing - that comes out of that landscape. It clearly brings together the human and the natural.

And that last line is beautiful - the finished fragrance of men. It somehow manages to convey the finality of it all but remain uplifting.

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