‘The Winter Coast’ by George Gunn

We don’t usually publish poetry on Bella but occasionally something comes into our hands which we can’t not publish.  The Winter Coast is one such poem.  In this beautiful, timely and epic work Caithness poet George Gunn reflects on a moment, a turning point, where the ground shifts beneath our very feet and everything becomes possible. In our opinion this is a major new work by one of Scotland’s finest poets.  It’s a privilege to be able to publish it first here on Bella.

THE WINTER COAST

(for Kevin Williamson on Burns Night 2012)

 

Six weeks of gales have blown the tide

flat into the bay

a thin white line like shifting ice

separates the sand dunes from the sea

the wind has washed the last green essence

from the January parks

& thoughtful eyes look to the window

to search for blue sky to the West

 

now calm has collared the neck of the storm

& frost has petrified the fields to grey

the bay is full of sea-smoke

& Hoy is iced behind a cloud

hung & busy at forty five degrees

a thin ship of snow & sunlight

tacking East to Cantick Head

 

Hoy is an eyebrow hovering over a dream

the fulmars have returned briefly

each one an Atlantic watercolour

to reclaim the biting air

the nations settlement has changed

since late Summer when they left

it is as if millennia under ice

has forced the sedimentary rock

to bow its flagstone head

but now released from this glacial weight

Caithness rises up to meet the sunlight

& is rising still

free from the oppression of the tilting world

so unlike the determination of Nature

& as unending as her storms

arguments congregate on this Winter coast

like shipwrecked rats on emptied islands

they find house-room easily enough

but will not go

 

today I saw a squad of curlews

beaking their way across a field

where the Two Harolds fought

a rough battle of hacking broadswords

& severed limbs to settle

the blood feud of the Jarl

 

what can I do here

but look for imaginary lives

those in the past I see

rising up from a desk

after a day of labour

opening a door into another room

or ambling across some acres

to view a potato park progressing

beneath a Northern sky

a grey-blue Summer sky

these shades rise & fall

with the sea-clouds off Dunnet Head

my heart leaps

 

the countrys future is shaped by such

as these & many other

formless dreams which find their frame

upon the tongues of those who fish & croft

& refuse to weep

when both coast & Winter

conspire to wash flat

the markers of their lives

 

there are no longer any “fabulous raiders”

save for the Atlantic storms

who sweep their valkyrie of rain

down over Hoy onto our sandstone lap

no longboats other than tankers & trawlers

drive through this bi-polar fjord

Flotta burns its constitution of North Sea gas

these are the leavings of trades weather

 

an otter swims through the edges of the tide

on the sorn for sellags & partans

who works at poems like these

like that anymore

in the pay-as-you-go university

of getting on

& having done so

unlike the otter

are permanently gone

 

Winter peels the skin of Caithness

back to the flagstone bone

on Dunnet sands

the fossil roots of ancient pines

spread out & claw the ebbing tide

like upturned crabs

so close after the two miles deep

pelt of ice retreated

so resin rich & once young

they filled the air with Alpine scent

now they ring millennia

like a swans leg

all this information sinking

into the shell sand

did I swim once otter-like

through these vanished tree-glades?

 

All this life is woven solid

into the slate-shirt of the land

every footprint & handhold

is locked tight

beside the fossil-fish & the dog-wilks

in there is lodged writing

a worm trace across mud

in the bitumen inked paper of flag

captured in an epic of Devonian seabed

 

Time is calm but the age is rough

all is hurry panic rage

difference is made to manufacture fear

so the storm grows confident

& tries on the coat of permanence

likes the fit & feel of it

the palms of my hands grow cold

 

I walk the Winter coast

in search or runes & light

up in the dunes behind me

the marram grass bends back like eyelids

they blink a parabola of three miles

& by the faint light of these flickering runes

I see that nothing is carved

but the sand by the wind

that we are ruled by barbarians

that everything is mocked & denied

to those who cannot forget

by those who cannot remember

 

they say the Aurora will be out tonight

but we will not see it

not because we are not “North of Norway”

but because the Atlantic clouds sit

like the ghosts of ideas on weeping Morven

its late January & the green glimmer

of the Merry Dancers is inside us

beside Robert Burns & the aspirations

of an “independent people”

drilled out like a row of turnips

in a forgotten field

but Januarys book will close

& the Winter coast will thaw its cheek

in the sap-wind of the coming Spring

for the window is still there

& the eyes still look

 

look soon Bride will bring Imbolg

& through the dead month

the wolf-month of Faoilleach

she will wave her white wand

the bellies of ewes will swell

& ravens will build their nests

& the shivering cold will search for itself

skylarks will return to the rising house of their song

but enough

the ground is still hard

from the poverty of thought

no light will shine

or flame burn

without organisation

as there is beneath the sky

& beneath the sea

who will go to the door

& invoke the revolution of desire

who will build such a fire

who will test their finger against the cold

for poverty is cold

who will drink

who will eat

& who will capture youth

& is a nation young

when it is so obviously old

for here is the ground

& here the birch trees grow

& we will drink & eat

enough enough

there is never enough

they tell us

for everyone

I say

there is enough

more than enough

as I look across this land

this sea this sky

this coast where dreams fuse

into purpose & to love

& fly with the fulmars to their home

to build the daylight of the heart

& set our rights out

as being only what we give

& with everything to give

we should give it all

& think nothing think nothing think nothing

of the cost

there is no cost

only love

 

which is our purpose

take the road to light

to the pushing new grass of promise

I heard the fulmar say

as she flew from the Winter coast

 

(c) GEORGE GUNN

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  1. Paul Carline says:

    Beautiful and powerful … and so right. “Difference is made to manufacture fear”; “We are ruled by barbarians”; “there is no cost … only love / which is our purpose”.

    But this is not the mantram of the SNP – as materialistic in essence as any other party. Scotland needs a new idealism that has little or nothing to do with outward affluence.

  2. Morag Lennie says:

    I like the coat of permanence, as well as the feel and fit of it, George, and maybe as well as the canvassing, and the arguing, and the changing of minds, just maybe we need to invoke Bride, and the Fiannach, and all the spirits and giants of the past, to fill the ether with courage, and belief, and determination.

    1. Ian Hamilton says:

      So full of haunting phrases! So full of truth!

      Think nothing of the cost

      There is no cost

      Only love

      Which is our purpose

      I was taught such a purpose sixty years ago by Neil Gunn and John MacCormick and have never regretted the lesson.

      Ian Hamilton

      Which is our purpose

  3. Soixante-neuf says:

    Thank you.

  4. bellacaledonia says:

    WordPress was playing funny buggers and stripping out the line spaces between verses but that’s it reformatted now and laid out the way it was written. The more I read this poem the more I think Scotland may have chosen the wrong poet for its Makar. Liz has a lot of work to do to come up with something this good and this relevant.

    KW

    1. John Souter says:

      Title’s don’t matter only the message – Well done George Gunn.

  5. Win Maclean says:

    Heart pounding and blood rushing in my head – this poem brought me back to the Caithness I haven’t seen for many years, thank you George Gunn.

  6. Steve says:

    Channelling GMB and Kenneth White- and that’s no bad thing

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