George Mackay Brown on Poets


Yesterday was the centenary of GMB’s birth so to mark that occasion, here’s a poem he wrote about the art, craft, graft and spirituality of poetry:

Four Kinds of Poet


‘Here, now. A new time, a new place. Write something. This
is expected by publishers, readers. Try to render both actuality
and soul of the place, look, and write. Quick. Time passes. The
place is changing as I look and write. I wither. The place ingath-
ers in a mesh of words. Words, keep me, keep all, now: a poem.


‘This place is boring, like most places. There’s nothing I feel
inclined to say about it. When (out of boredom) I try to find
equivalent words, the place changes: a fog shifts, lifts. There are
the stones, piers, windows, chimneys, children of light and water
that once he saw in a good dream – long forgotten: a poem.


‘What happened here? congregate, ghosts, among the
weathered and cracked stones. Take my mouth, speak. dance.
There was nothing but ritual on earth once. I imagine cere-
monies. I will make masks: among those shadows buying and
selling: a poem.


‘Creation of a word, this place. What word? The word is
streaming across time, holding this place and all planets and all
grains of dust in a pattern, a strict equation. I am always trying
to imitate the sound and shape and power of the unknowable
word. Dry whisperings: a poem.’

While the last stanza reaches a mystical depth, the first three are not to be despised. For GMB, there was work, effort involved in the making of a poem. It did not only flow when the Muses stirred but was also the result of patient abiding, well-honed craft, willingness to attend to the particularities of place and the endurance of fabled memories.

For a Christian reader of this poet who was a Catholic Christian, this all makes perfect sense: ascesis yields to insight; patience paves the way to theoria, myth and ritual hold eternal meaning, and who could fail to see The Word in ‘the word’ of that last stanza?

Thank you, faithful interrogator of silence, for your many and beautiful imitations of the sound and shape and power of the unknowable W/word!

Heaven Underneath Your Hand

Little grebe - Wikipedia

Thomas of Celano tells of a moment in St Francis’s life when he is crossing the Lake of Rieti. A fisherman offers the saint a little water-bird ‘so that he might rejoice in the Lord over it.’ Francis took the bird gently in his hands and invited it to fly away freely. The bird was content to rest in the saint’s hand and Francis ‘remained in prayer’. Here is how Ann Wroe reflects on that story in her wonderful book of ‘songs’ about Francis:

A water bird, he says it is,
as he draws on
his slapping oar to get across
before day’s gone;
a water bird, light as a shell,
whose rainbow sheen
breathes heaven underneath your hand,
intact, serene;
a water bird whose opaque eye
half-closed in sleep
contains this lake, this mountainside,
snowed height, black deep.
trembling you guard this being now,
warm as coal,
just-held, as by the dipping prow
your life: your soul.

This moment of utter simplicity seems to me to be a perfect icon of Francis’s way of being in the world – a chosen fragility whose strength is compassion. It is Christ’s way of being in the world – as fragile and as nourishing as broken bread.

In its freedom, the bird chooses to rest rather than to fly, just as the contemplative chooses to sit with the reality of the world in clear-sighted trust rather than to turn away towards the lure of any distraction that offers its momentary sparkle. In contemplative awareness, the bird ‘contains’ the lake and the mountain – no separation, no distance.

If the church were to offer only one gift to humanity in its struggle to restore nature’s fragile balance, it might choose to offer this contemplative way: holding all of life gently; choosing to abide with all that challenges us; open-eyed in contemplative awareness; seeing ‘heaven in ordinarie’; seeking the way of peace and rest.