Sport 17: Spring 1996
K.O. Arvidson — Mid-Winter Orkney
The low smoothed-over hills of Orkney flow
to the east and the rising sun, hills of barley
in summer and butter-coloured; but now they lie
dark as the western flagstone cliffs, grey
with mist, harsh with the skuas' cries, and the shrikes',
the cries of kittiwakes and terns. Wind and ice
assault the dawn, and assault the frozen light.
Like frozen wires the few thin aspens,
birches and willows at best x-rays of trees,
some ghostly rowans. Feldefare and curlew ill
at ease edge forward on the frozen flats
like mountaineers afraid of falling off.
The creaking kites, the birds that call
invisibly over the grey surf hold the land.
At the centre of Orkney the ring of sixty stones
on Brodgar tells the neolithic truth
that life is life and goes away for a while
in winter, then indestructibly comes back.
The sun moves neither north nor south. It stands
at a point in the ecliptic furthermost away,
pausing among the gravities of the stars,
then turns and falls as springtime on the earth.
What was the Pictish for ecliptic? How did Picts
manage to get their tongues around the celestial
equator? No matter, they somehow filled the silences
of their smoky flagstone huts with metaphors like these,
page 27 and mapped the year's slow pendulum of the sun
in sixty standing stones on the broad field.
And west of the ring they built Maes Howe for death
to wait in till the solstice and mid-winter's sign of light.
They laid their dead with dogroses and barley bread
in the chamber made to be a womb of stone,
deep in the howe at the end of a tunnel so narrow
none could walk there, but had to go through lengthwise.
There the dead waited, that now are all vanished away.
The winter solstice sun strikes at dawn
in a spoke of light bisecting the hub of Brodgar,
entering the eye of Maes Howe, into the chamber
bright for a moment like the molten globe
at the end of a glassblower's rod, one moment of light
in the deep dark rock of the year revealing in runes
‘Ingeborg is the most beautiful of women’,
and related runes, that some women go with the cooks
and some with the butchers, and that madness fills
the air for the press of darkness; all this illumination
a moment only, while outside the howe
the dawn resists its rising in the bitter wind,
and the birds of prey cry out and clack their beaks,
and resurrection gets forgotten in the stir of the land.