Poems from recent travels

This past spring Ann Sherrill and I went to Orkney and Shetland, which are technically part of Scotland but far to its north and steeped in as much Norwegian culture and tradition as Scottish. I want to describe the beauty and the mystery of this part of the world- remote, wild, and yet somehow familiar and friendly. The standing stone circles, Neolithic and Viking remains are everywhere, and some sites more ancient than that. Cliffs bear the deeply etched evidence of moving glaciers, and you can walk up into those cliffs and be among puffins (which are tiny, adorable, and surprisingly fast) as well as sea eagles with 8-foot wing spans This was the trip I took on my sabbatical this past spring. I’ve undertaken several projects for this semester. One of them is a book of poems I am (still) writing. I needed to move the writing forward by going somewhere different and having some new experiences. Ann and I both tend to gravitate toward remote, desolate islands with massive, mysterious stone monuments. Go figure. So this blog post is not directly about education (although studying schools in Orkney and Shetland might be a project for the future because of the seamless way they appear to integrate traditional folk art into their formal schooling) but it is about the way in which I made a conscious effort in my travels to be aware of aesthetic encounters with both the natural and the man made environment. Questioning, a key element of aesthetic education, is the only way to understand these ancient stone sites. The guides from Historic Scotland would qualify many of their interpretations of the ancient sites with “But we’ll never really know.”

Here is a triptych poem- one long poem divided into three parts- telling the story of one of our adventures in Shetland. It is an example of how I intend to interpret and describe the encounters that took place during May 2015 in Orkney and Shetland. This story in particular takes place on a tiny island called Mousa, off the main island of the Shetland archipelago.

Mousa Boat Man and the Storm Petrels

I. Mousa Boat Man

He speaks of the storm petrels in a hushed tone.
“Twenty-seven grams. Weight of a one-pound coin.”
His back to the dock where his ferry boat bobs,
eyes fixed on the long stretch of peaty bog
between us and the broch, the
Iron Age fortress, mysterious
tower of Norse legend.
Dark stone sentinel that
looms at the edge of this
lonely Shetland island.

Mousa boat man reaches into
the pocket of his wool trousers.
Artifact in a plastic sandwich bag
“The storm petrel flies
halfway around the world
on these wings.”

he makes an arc in the air with his
calloused fingertip

A perfect pair of peerie black wings
passed around the sturdy walkers.

Storm petrels nest in the Mousa broch.
Round, windowless tower
raised high on the cliffs and
silhouetted against the sky.
Ancient tower of double
walls and secret passages.
Witness to the ages on this
misty northern island.

Mousa boat man says
“Take your time. See the birds.
They swoop under cover of dusk
past hungry raptors, into the broch.
Careful where you step.
They nest in the stairway”

II The Simmer Dim

Early in Shetland’s summer,
dusk comes at midnight.
In the simmer dim,
night holds its breath in liminal light.
Mousa boat man waits by the dock.
Ann and I head off with the sturdy walkers.

My job is to walk and to see.
Sky slowly dims, just
enough to match the ground.
I struggle along the path
etched by sheep into mud and rocks
along the cliff edge. Ann asks if I want to go on.
I say yes.
The last few feet a steep climb,
“I’ve got you,” she says,
pulls me up by the hand.
It is night but not night.
First moon since we’ve been here.
I realize how much I’ve missed it.
Storm petrels circle around the moon,
dive into the broch. Tiny winged missiles.
We crouch beneath the low-linteled entrance,
crawl into its skylit tower.
Ann climbs stone stairs that
rise like jagged teeth
between massive double walls.
I stay below, listen for
wings beating in the shadows.

The sun sinks lower, the
moon rises higher and
disappears in the mist.

In the simmer dim, faint light lingers
deep into the night.
Tonight, the wind has knives.
The ground is unforgiving.
It’s time to find our way back to the boat.
The going is slow. The
simmer dim won’t illuminate.
Ann lights our way with an IPhone.
No time to pause to
gain or regain footing.

III. Mousa Boat Man Waits at the Helm of his Ferry.

Into the half-light with a torch and a staff,
come two of the sturdy walkers
calling out, guiding us
away from the edge of the cliff
toward the dock.
One foot in front of the other.
A doctor once told me
a foot is just a bag of bones.
I place my bones gingerly
along the rain-slick path.

Fleece-wrapped walkers
huddle quietly on benches.
Straggling storm petrels
still dive toward the broch.
Mousa boat man says nothing.
He starts his engine and
turns away from Mousa island.

Ann starts the car.
We drive home to Scalloway, village
In the shadow of a ruined castle.
Porch light on the house
overlooking the harbor
Beth and Ian’s kitchen,
stories flow deep
into the simmer dim.
A dram of whisky.
A Tunnock’s teacake.

Amanda Nicole Gulla 2015

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