Sunday, 25 August 2013

"Where the River Meets the Sea" (1997) by John Mackie

1. Garmach

S/he who hunts for forebears
Through the archive at Elgin
Knows that the past is never sepia
Except as the result of technical naïveté
In the mechanism of memory or the chemistry of light.
In my father's mind there was but black and white.

That woman who with her empty creel
Waits in weeds on the Buckie fish quay
For a spume broken glimpse through a heaving sea
Of a garnering ship that long since sits
Flanks and planks agape, asunder
On the tumbled rocks of Elgol
Below the headless crofts
That died alone
When the people, driven, went
From the land agent's fire
And the landlord's rent.

Not yet spent
Is the taste of the flesh
Of seabird's eggs
That sea wrack taste
That he learned to endure
Of bird rendered par
Plucked from the jaws
Of the searing white sky
Gathered in clutches
From the teeming shore
Of Tern Island's crouch
Low on the Spey

At Tugnet perched on the jaws of the river
Prowling again, ready to bite
Its own forcing channel
Through the huddle of Kingston,
The fishing museum is a snapshot too
The salmon an idol rendered in plaster
The faces of fishers close to the bone
Positions frozen in the rhythm of effort:
In this designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
My father aloud remembered
Who never came home
From the tumult of waters that closed in on their eyes
As the ravenous drag-netting flow took its dues
Amongst the fishers of Garmach.

And his brother my uncle
Loudly contemptuous of change
The Shire engineers had sought to enforce
By blasting a mouth to bite on the frenzy
That sent cottagers scattering as the waters rose
With the might of far mountains
As their drift snows unfroze:
Emissaries of granite
The first floods took back
A mile's width of plain from the scratchings of men.
How long was his love for that river
In its unbound abandon
And the headlong salmon
Soaring high from its spate
And how broad his contempt
For the efforts of those
Who tried to impose
The violence of order
On its deep dark flow.

2. The Clachan

From the Braes close by Sconser
You can glimpse it across
The reflections of mountains broken by Orca:
The hamlet of Clachan on Maclean's Rathasair
Strung out like pebbles randomly there. See
A small white house on the lip of the sea
Backed by a cliftan that hoods it in lee
Where a limpeting aunt, clinging on,
Gallinaceous in both aspect and voice
Celebrated her centenary
As a consequence of choice.

In exile in Moray the places remain
In vivid incarnations
Of the spirit of place
Arduish, Oskaig, Suishnish, Rathasair
That Sorley invokes on every page
Of a landscape that lives in every soul
That grew by its lochans
Heron speared, bold,
Or foraged for cockles
In the old harbour's bowl.

Though the Sound in its violence roars
(Impossible to broach)
And the breath of the Arctic icy and frantic
Colludes with Winter's reproach
The enduring sensations are wide blue and clear
And the shadows of woodlands
Harbouring deer.

She speaks the names
Like a liturgy of peace
And peoples her memory
With strong honest kin:
Women whose work was all of a piece
In hewing and setting the cornerstones of weathering
And dark bearded men whose gathering guile
Kept the pot in every cottage, croft,
Filled with the herring, mackerel, cod
And the laird's lost yearlings.
Mutton and venison taken by night
The fish by day
On the Sound's glacial light

3. Garmouth

Where the river meets the sea they returned
To tend the plot they took back by hand
From rank and gross neglect
And each for all the generations of us
Makes vivid the times
Before their currents intertwined
Mingled breath and gave voice
To my brothers'
And lately, to mine:

Like the Arctic Terns of the Spey
And the sea cleaving otters of Clachan
Neat on Raasay's shore
The exiles I've taken
(With my father's search for more, meaning enough,
Or my own, running from unease of place
Or the ambiguous myths I made to beguile
And to make it easier to seem than to be)
Have circled me back
Day by year's long day
To where I sit to breathe awhile
On the rocks of Arduish
Or by the Spey's swollen race
Where both Ted Hughe's tooth and claw
And Sorley's gentle geomancy are.

The black and white images
From my families' albums
Teem in my stillness
Like circling Terns.

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