When I visited the stone circle at Callanish, on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, I was moved, but didn’t know it’d produce a poem. In fact my idea was to write about the courage and inventiveness of prehistoric humans and what had become of that, but my first thought was to pin that on Stonehenge.
Just as well I changed my mind. Callanish fits. From then on I was almost in a trance as I wrote. Once I’d written a first draft, I went through making the poem a bit less smooth and regular, because I was convinced it must be a rough-edged, spiky poem. Since I was in a trance-like state, I can’t explain some lines better than any thoughtful critic.
CALLANISH: WINTER SOLSTICE
The stones do not speak, they do not move
They are intense, apart
They will say nothing to the darkening sea
The wandering visitors in bright cagoules
The impoverished and water-sodden soil
They spoke once
In a moment’s flutter of day
In the Northern winter’s night
Moment when time stood still
New birth at winter’s turn
Welcomed the sun, its covenant; renewed
The hard-won order of stony fields
That welcome is long gone
Grown cold, as women whose shattered skulls
Bore witness to the dark side of the sun
Neither the magical smith nor carver
Of mythical fish on soft stones
Will answer a call
What happened to
That wonderful inventiveness?
Carousel of light and song
Iridescent fly picked apart
Whispering forest butchered
For the giant’s unreal hoard
Under clawing black roots
Soft words to a chasm
The human time
May be nearly over and then
The embossed golden shield with lost words
Foretelling the end and beginning
A glorious tragedy ending
Will tumble and shatter
Or will there be new words spoken
Round Callanish ring still unbroken?
With the warning above, here goes: the poem starts with Callanish as it is now, visited by tourists. Then it leaps back to when it was a site of worship. The worship, and their society, had a dark side, but they made wonderful inventions and art. The inventiveness has led to destruction. If we go on as we are, not only may the environment be devastated in a mass extinction, but we may be one of the species going extinct. But there may be a way to avoid that.