Greenland

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 www.kennethsteven.co.uk
From Salt and Light, published in 2011 by Saint Andrew Press

Games

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

The Birth of the Foal

My eyes still fought with sleep. Out over the fields
Mist lay in grey folds, from vague somewheres
Curlews rose up with thin trails of crying. Our lanterns
Rocked in soft globes of yellow, our feet
Slushed through the early morning thickness of the grass.

She lay on her side, exhausted by her long night;
The hot smell of flanks and head and breath
Ghosted from her spread length.
Sunlight cracked from the broken yolk of the skies,
Ruptured the hills, spangled our eyes and blinded us,
Flooded the pale glows of our lanterns.

There he lay in a pool of his own wetness:
Four long spindles scrabbling, the bigness of his head, a bag of a body –
All struggling to find one another, to join up, to glue
Into the single flow of a birthright. He fought
For the first air of his life, noised like a child.

His mother, still raw and torn from the scar of his birth,
Turned, and her eyes held him –
The great harsh softness of her tongue stilled his struggle.

We knelt in the wet grass, dumbed
By a miracle, by something bigger than the sun.

The poem is published in the collection Wild Horses, and in Kenneth Steven’s volume of selected poems, Island – both from Saint Andrew Press.

Helen

I’ve not written for a few days now, mainly because I haven’t had the heart. I lost my dear sister to cancer and despite having stood at her graveside in Sutherland, in the top left hand corner of Scotland, I can’t believe she’s gone. I won’t truly believe that, I think, until I’ve landed on the Isle of Iona and know that she won’t be there to greet me, to tell me of some new adventure she’s planning, or to take me on a walk to somewhere I’ve not known before. I keep saying that she was the youngest person I’ve ever known. That’s why my family’s still struggling to believe it’s possible she’s gone: she had such extraordinary vitality, such a huge sense of fun and laughter, that no-one can understand how it could be taken away. Somehow I think of her as the human embodiment of an otter: they are always on the move – for all the hours of the day they are frisking and searching and diving and sliding. They are water come alive; flowing in every direction. Somehow that sums up Helen. For all the last days I have felt numb and have written not a word. Then at five thirty this morning phrases began tugging me, and after three hours of scribbling I felt the poem had found its way onto the page.

My Sister Helen

She was Scotland to me:
bedtime stories that woke me
to the history of Wallace and Bruce,
would have had me up in a saddle,
galloping back in time
for the bits of the border we’d lost.

She lived down endless long windings of bumps,
in cottages with attics and owls –
the hope of conkers in the morning.

She drove me one August night
when the skies were orange and bruised,
till the storm was flickering booms
and we came back in the silvering rain.

She was drives at high speed
down roads that should have closed long ago,
in cars that were held together
by the hope of a better tomorrow.

She would coax a whole ceilidh
out of a candle and an old bothy;
she was songs and tin whistles
in the middle of the worst of blizzards.

She was a beach where you could always swim,
and a place you’d not known before;
she was a fire that would set you alight,
an adventure that was yet to be planned.  

Kenneth Steven 2016

Gaelic

Although I write in English, and English is the language I grew up with, I sometimes remember that I should have grown up with the Gaelic language too. My mother’s family were all from the West Highlands of Scotland: they were crofting people – sheep, hens, a little arable land. It was a struggle against a constant fear of poverty, and that was the way it had been for hundreds of years. Although my mother was brought up in a household where English was the first language, both her parents – my grandparents – had plenty of the Gaelic language in their blood. But by the first decades of last century, it was a language that had been actively persecuted for a hundred and fifty years.

The Battle of Culloden, the final half hour of slaughter at the end of the second Jacobite Rising, fought in 1746, sealed the fate of the northern half of Scotland for ever. It led to the Clearances, where hundreds of thousands of Highland Scots left the country for America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The whole Jacobite story is a mighty complex business, not something that can be neatly described in a few paragraphs. But it’s a story worth exploring nonetheless. Many modern day Scots have a dangerously oversimplified view of this story as having been a fight between England and Scotland. That view is not helped by the Hollywoodisation of history through films like Braveheart. The simple truth is that it was most complicated.

What is much clearer is the aftermath. The Hanoverian forces, fresh from their victory at Culloden, set about bringing the Highlands into line. Villages were burned and innocent people, whose only crime was to speak the Gaelic language, were hanged. Some of the Highland survivors of the battle were taken down to England and hung, drawn and quartered. The message was clear: never was this kind of rebellion to happen again.

In the years that followed, two very clever strategies were employed to enforce that message. The first was the building of military roads into the wildest parts of the Highlands to ensure that soldiers could reach every corner as quickly as possible. The second was the establishment of tiny schools in every glen for one purpose above all others – the teaching of the English language and the suppression of the Gaelic tongue. Gaelic was the language of the rebellious Highlanders, so Gaelic had to be brought under control.

It was a strategy employed elsewhere in the Celtic countries, and it was most successful. I sometimes think it’s amazing any Gaelic at all remains in the Scottish Highlands, so efficiently was the programme carried out after 1746. What happened in the end was that many Highlanders came to hate their own language: they refused to pass it on to their children, seeing it as a handicap compared with ‘useful’ languages like French and German. By the time my mother went to school half an hour from Inverness, her headmaster – a fine speaker of Gaelic himself – believed that any child speaking his tongue should have the living daylights beaten out of him. And that kind of thinking was seen as joined-up.

There’s something of a revival in Gaelic in today’s Scotland, but it’s by no means an easy story of success. There are pockets of progress: that’s all one can say. But there’s a long way to go.

AFTER CULLODEN

The wounded wandered home in Gaelic
by rivers and back roads;
all they had fought for
unsure and broken.

Hoe long before they saw
their language and their land
like a limb that’s tied too tight,
still there but dying all the time.

Or like a wildcat caught at last
not killed, but tamed;
de-clawed, castrated –
then stroked and told to purr.

The Horses

The Horses

Edwin Muir was born at the end of the 19th Century on the tiny island of Wyre in the Orkneys. Mechanisation had not come to the island: he grew up in a little world that had not changed for hundreds of years. It was a magical childhood: no doors were locked and there was a kindness and trust between people the like of which he never experienced again.

But the family fell on hard times and had to move to mainland Orkney first of all, and was then plunged into the horrors of industrial Glasgow. One after another, the closest members of his family died until he alone was left. The trauma of what he experienced in those first years never left him, nor did his yearning for the Eden of that island home. Essentially through all the rest of his life as a poet he was searching and searching for Wyre, and for all that he had lost.

In the last years of his life he wrote a deeply haunting poem entitled ‘The Horses’. It’s a poem of the new nuclear age: a devastating war has destroyed the nations, and a little huddle of people are left on what might be an island. Their tractors lie useless in the fields: their radios are dumb. They wait in the silence, wondering what will happen next.

And what happens is that a great wave of horses flows into their midst. They have come unbidden, horses having been sold for tractors long years before. But the horses come of their own volition, as though in answer to some unheard call. They come willing to pull their ploughs and bear their loads.

I believe that through this poem Muir finds his way back to the island of his childhood. The paradox is that he finds it through the imagining of nuclear winter and a post apocalyptic state. For that is the only way the detritus of our modern clutter can be cleared away and there can be a beginning again. This is what is necessary for a healing to happen, for the noise to be stilled and for listening to begin.

Find the poem and read it as an Easter meditation. And my programme on the whole story of Muir’s life, and on the poem, will be broadcast this Easter Sunday at 4.30pm on BBC Radio 4. If you miss it, the programme will be available for a number of days via Listen Again.

Vanguard

Vanguard

Almost every week I travel to the west coast of Scotland by one of the finest railway lines I’ve ever experienced – that linking Glasgow and Oban. It passes through some of the most beautiful landscape Scotland possesses, until it arrives at the western edge, where an island-studded coastline begins.
It’s because of that journey it’s all the more poignant and painful to travel right past the Faslane nuclear base where the Trident submarine fleet is deployed. Were it to be unleashed, it would result in the equivalent of two thousand Hiroshimas. I find the obscenity of that horror, set against the purity and the fragility of the landscape which surrounds it, almost too much to bear.It’s one of the main reasons I am passionately committed to Scottish independence, because Scotland never voted for the deployment of the Trident fleet, nor did Scotland have any say in that deployment. It was decided in London. The nuclear base is sited just half an hour from Glasgow, the second largest conurbation in the British Isles. The people of Scotland would not have voted for Trident had they been given the choice: it’s as simple as that.In a post 9/11 world, the nuclear base at Faslane becomes the biggest imaginable target for a suicide bomber. This submarine fleet might have been appropriate (just and no more) in the bad old days of the Cold War, but in a new age of rogue states and rogue militants, it’s nothing more than a target waiting for a dart.I believe nuclear weapons, and the industry that gave them birth, to be nothing less than an obscenity. I cannot reconcile a nuclear armed world with a God who stands behind the creation of this priceless planet. To think that we would contemplate its destruction with the depression of a single button (for that is what we do when we deploy such weapons’ systems) is beyond all belief.

If a man should come now to your door
selling motorways, a rustle of money in his eyes;
do not buy his road, for it leads
to all our lost riches, our need of God.

(From A Poem for Ivars, published in Island, the selected poems of Kenneth Steven, Saint Andrew Press)

Easter Lilies

Easter Lilies

We forget all about them
in the year’s darkness, in the long winter.

Without a sound they are there one morning;
a kind of sunlight grown from the ground –

as if some call had woken them
from the underworld of their sleep,

out into the middle of March
to Easter the earth with their heads.

Flapped and flayed by the wind,
broken yolks splashing the air;

all that we had hoped for –
an answer to prayer.

From Kenneth Steven’s 2014 collection from SPCK in London, Coracle