A few days ago I saw an image on the internet that imprinted itself on my subconscious. It was all the more shocking because I was exploring something entirely different, and as a result I was quite unprepared for what I saw. It was a small picture at the bottom of my screen of a starving polar bear attempting to climb onto a thin fragment of ice. The bear looked to be a quarter or even less of its normal weight: there was little left of the creature. It was the remains of a polar bear.

A number of years ago I had the privilege of visiting Greenland. It is a wondrous country: the biggest island in the world with just fifty thousand of a population. There are no roads in Greenland: the tiny communities that hug the coast are linked by sea. I have thought of it since as a child’s fantasy kingdom: when you look up at the mountains you can hardly believe the height of them, or the sharpness of the peaks. It is the most hauntingly beautiful place I have ever seen.

I spoke to a man from one of the villages who remembered his childhood. He said that when he was a boy they drove round to visit friends in winter. Not by road – there were no roads then any more than there are none now – but by sea. They got into their cars and they crossed the sea ice to visit friends. Now, he told us, there is no sea ice. Not that it is too thin for such driving: there is no ice at all. He told us the ice is retreating a full ten miles each year.

Before I left Greenland I bought one souvenir – a tiny carved polar bear. A long time later I wrote this poem, remembering the precious days of our stay and thinking of the future. I thought of it the other day, when I saw the image of the starving polar bear and all day could not put it from my mind.

Last year in Greenland I bought it
Under great whales of mountains by a sea of ice,
From a table of things all carved from shining:
Little men threading water, their softstone canoes,
Walrus rearing at harpoons in mid-roar.

Now, all this time later, that place
Remains like some story from a book.
I turn it in the light, my polar bear on a pad of ice,
And think of the world wilting in the sun’s wrath,
And nowhere left for the polar bear to go.

Kenneth Steven
From Salt and Light, published in 2011 by Saint Andrew Press


I find that I have to write this before the end of the Olympic days in Brazil. The news bulletins here in Britain have spoken of little else for weeks: the gold medal by one or other British athlete is the first headline each morning. 

And hidden somewhere in among the end-pieces of the news, there are sometimes stories from Syria. Almost like tiny fragments of debris: things found among the ruins. I keep wondering – as I have done almost since the beginning of this war – just how huge the aftermath of it will be. The longer it continues the greater the shadow somehow, and the more terrible the stories that emerge. 

But we do not really care. I continue to have this awful sense of the way in which we rank human beings: somehow there is an order of importance. We know that white Europeans essentially come top, and news from other places has to be pretty desperate before we take much notice. Even with all the horror that emerges concerning Syria in the end, I do not believe for one moment that we will be changed by it. We may think we learn for a time; the truth is that we will forget once more. 

So what is the point of writing at all? I sit beside my computer screen in the tranquillity and late summer beauty of Highland Perthshire in the north of Scotland. I have the freedom to write what I want; as is evidenced by what I put onto the screen. It is a kind of prayer for the forgotten people of Syria; a cry into the darkness that we might look and listen and remember. 

Somehow the suffering I see on my screen and at the news stands puts all my petty concern into perspective. I think of my beloved five year old child – for whom I would do anything, were it necessary – and I think of the fathers of Syria who can do nothing for the pain and cruelty and hunger that their equally beloved little ones are suffering. 

Here in Dunkeld, in this most beautiful corner of Scotland, we are known for our music. I had the idea of gathering together some of the better known musicians to give a concert in our Cathedral, on behalf of the Syrian cause. We found a charity called Edinburgh Direct Aid and we asked them to come to speak to us about the work they were doing to alleviate the suffering in Syria. We hoped that a few would join us from the local community: this is only a small rural village. 

The cathedral was so full that we had to find extra seats for people. There were over 500 present. That day, after a magnificent concert, we raised £5 000. We were pleased: it had been worthwhile. Then came the amazing news: someone present had been so moved by the event and what had been created that they were donating £20 000 to Edinburgh Direct Aid. Mighty oaks and little acorns.


Living Room

Living Room

Now the storm of last night’s passed;
everything lies torn in early morning

like a ship left tattered on the sea,
her rigging all in shreds, decks strewn with debris – 

yet the storm itself forgotten, meaningless
beneath the glass-clear sky of morning.

You lie asleep, your hand curled white,
your breathing barely there at all;

and I come close on soundless feet and see
the shouting strewn about the floor, 

the twisted arguments, the accusations – 
I hear the echo of the long, slow crying

before the silence fell and we both crept away
to the corners of the dark, to gnaw the silence

and hear our hearts until we slept at last. 
Now we have awakened into this strange day

and will not know what we should say or think
but look away, pretend, do everything

as if in some unwritten play, and acting badly –
wondering what happens next, how everything will end. 

From Kenneth Steven’s newest collection of poems, Letting in the Light,just published by SPCK in London;
a volume about the pain of marital breakdown and the parting from a beloved child. 
ISBN 978-0-281-07670-3