Nightfall on Orkney: A Glosa

by Neile Graham

Indoors, women tended the different flames
Of lamp and hearth. The old ones chanted again
     Mighty tempests of foretime.
         The children tumbled gently into sleep.
            —from George MacKay Brown, "The Wreck of the Archangel"

Don't be scared of this dark: it's only
winter tumbling down again like night does,
ripping the rare leaves from the few trees
who stretch naked to the heavy sky,
calling it down. Weighed low by muted fields
and shifting lochs, hanging cloud frames
everything in gray — then charcoal, then black,
black night. Against which men have ever stacked
their bonfires, children danced their games.
Indoors, women tended the different flames
each behind her own red door, curtains tight-drawn.
Each wind-adoring chink edging window or door 
stuffed with rags, the women cooked up charms 
to calm sharp words, restless wit, cabin-fever, 
to chill mischief and the wandering eye, to instill 
love of refuge, of roofs between flesh and rain.
When at last the men and children wearied
of fires and games, they came in to shed winter,
to shelter from its victory in tales mundane
Of lamp and hearth. The old ones chanted again
the old yarns. Then one lifted a fiddle, one her voice,
one tapped his boot on the stone floor until all clapped
and sang the season out beyond the door. It might fling
twigs and ice, snow devils, salt and waves chopped
from roiling sea against rag-stopped walls, gust through
chimneys to whirl ashes to flurries, spin more grime.
But yet they outsang the darkness, outskirled the blustering
wind in the eaves, outspoke the words storm tossed
against the windows, describing in the oldest beats or rhyme,
     Mighty tempests of foretime.
And thus they shamed the weather. Tamed it. For at least
one night at a time. And if it meant that for long the winds
were toilsome, irksome, icing necks and ankles, teasing 
round corners, under skirts, up trousers and sleeves,
splashing sleet onto any uncovered face, they counted it worth 
the cost. Each day after, moments earlier, light would creep
to own the sky, dark more slowly each day edge low
into the world. So within these stone walls listen hard:
is it wind or voices, words of storm or men rumbling deep?
          The children tumbled gently into sleep.

Neile Graham is Canadian by birth and inclination, having grown up in B.C. and currently living in Seattle. That, in conjunction with her lifelong fascination with myth and folklore has led to her working on a collection of poems about the mythic lore of Scotland and the Pacific Northwest, from which this poem comes. She has three previous collections of poetry, Seven Robins, Spells for Clear Vision, and Blood Memory, as well as a CD of her reading her work, She Says: Poems Selected and New. Her poems and stories have been published in the U.S., the U.K., and Canada. Her favourite fruits are the raspberries from her garden, which she annually combines with apricots and spices to make jam.

When asked whether or not she believes in ghosts, Neile replied, "I didn't believe in anything like ghosts until I had the decidedly unsettling experience of something not visibly but very audibly sitting near me in a wicket chair. There was a long silence during which I felt closely watched. I sat very still under that gaze. Then, about 20 minutes later, I heard the distinct noise of someone getting out of the chair and leaving. Since then I have been more careful about not believing in beings to avoid further visitations. For example, I don't not believe in banshees, goblins, red caps, or any other mischievous or malevolent (or for that matter benevolent) creatures."

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