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SORLEY, SORELY MISSED

How do we frame a poet’s voice in our minds as we read? What speed, what cadence, what emphasis, what accent? What voice, indeed do we wear ourselves? For it is certainly not the outer voice that surprises us when we hear a recording of what we, apparently, sound like.

Some poets seem perfect, or have found others with perfect voices for their thoughts. Nothing, for example, can evoke the poetic voice of Dylan Thomas more than the deep rumbling resonance of Richard Burton reading ‘Under Milk Wood’.
Often though, the modern poet reads their own words in a style that obscures the meaning. This seemed to be particularly prevalent in the Sixties and Seventies. The Liverpool poets and the punk poets chose to emphasise the rhythm by unnatural stresses on syllables and a tonal nasality reminiscent of the stereotypical folk singer. Like Bob Dylan impressionists without the tunes! The sound made by the mouth, cadence, alliteration, assonance all take over from the listener’s ability to understand the meaning – to build their own mental pictures of the words.
I first heard the recorded voice of Sorley MacLean on a track by Martyn Bennett named after the poem “Hallaig”. He had been given permission by the widow to use an old recording as the counterpoint to a wistful whistle track on the album ” Bothy Music”.

Although I had heard his name as one, but not the most famed, of the Scottish poets writing still in traditional Gaelic language and idiom, I had not read or heard his work. He wrote in Gaelic and translated himself into English. As a Highland poet his words are wistful, nostalgic, elegiac, mournful, fierce and eloquent. The style echoes the declamatory clan poets, praising, remembering, cursing and framing the human emotion within a landscape of evocative names. How evocative for those who have not seen those glens and lochs is difficult to say, but for me, who lived in Scotland for six years and often spent time in retreat beside Loch Rannoch it brings back all the resonant depth of that land.

Reading certain information or certain authors locks one in to one’s own creative flow, spontaneously releasing echoes and explorations. Once heard, the voice of Sorley MacLean becomes the voice of his words – the only way to unlock the images.
They took me back in my memories and so these of my own words flowed in fits and starts…..

Note: Scheihallion is a notable mountain at the head of Loch Rannoch, beside Loch Tummel. It can be seen from the railhead that skirts the desolation of Rannoch Moor and once seen, its conical form cannot be forgotten. It is said to be the home of the Fairies….

Heart songs,
Memory whispers, glimpses
Of beauty
In Breadlebane and Rannoch.

The language of clouds
Dark waters,
Bright birches.
Rannoch and Breadlebane
Where my heart wanders
Amongst
The rain and sunlit hills.
Mist of memory.
Scent of pines
And heather dust.

——-

From the height of Croiscrag
The deer tracks
wander.
Scent of heather dust
And the dark waters below
The silent,
bright birches.

Beyond sight,
but not mind
The peerless depths
of Loch Etive
Over the hills…..

There shall be no need to remember,
No desire to forget…..

I shall be a birch, an alder
Leaning over the small sands
Gazing upon the waters of Rannoch,
Mirror deep with morning.

Curls of mist…..

And I shall speak only
The language of sedge-grass,
The song of pines breathing,
Of curlew ‘s lament,
Carried low
Like a midwinter sun……

Dawn air,
Wine cool, fragrant
As flesh:
the only food I need.
Gazing for a thousand years –
Silent ripples on deep water…..

From the Bridge of Gaur
Sunset shadows
Looking on Schiehallion….

——

When I am dead,
And dreaming,
From the Bridge of Gaur
I will gaze on the face of
Scheihallion
For a thousand years-
If that
is not too little time.

A thousand sunrises, a thousand sunsets,
A thousand patterns of sun and cloud.

And when I am dead and dreaming:
A thousand years
By the lochside
With the alders, with the birches-
In the hours before dawn
As the water mirrors the hillsides
And all is still and fresh,
With the curlews voice
And the heron’s wings above me.

And when I am dead and dreaming
I shall climb the sides of Scheihallion
With little effort, counting each stone,
Breathless, eyeless, sorrowless,
Seemlessly holding each step,
A memory of perfection.

The birches of Croiscrag will speak,
As will the lichen
and the dew-heavy sedges.

I will converse with the bones
In the dark depths of Loch Rannoch,
The silent, steep shores of Loch Etive.

Eloquent in silence
Perfect in mist.
Reflected mist, reflected heaven,
Under the gaze of Scheihallion,
Wrapped in its cloak,
Its roots winding up time
And holding each moment.

I shall converse with the bones
That are dust, as I myself
Am dust, and my friends
All with me – dust once more.

For my heart will tremble
With the red deer on the hillside.
My voice will speak
Through the long grasses and the harsh sedge.
My memories will be carried
On the woodsmoke rising-
The smell of woodsmoke and
The dust of heather,
The rowan in red autumn
And the hoarfrost stillness.

Each root and particle,
Each drop from the beck,
Each ripple wetting rock,
Each small footprint on the foreshore,
Each dancing midge and mote at sunset,

When I am dead and dreaming
Gazing once more upon Scheihallion.

———-

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