Callanish

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

Cold-handed celebrants

Gathered around

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.

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4 Comments

  1. There’s a nice possibility in this poem….a possibility that can be expanded into more poems I think….

    Reply
    • Hmm… not sure how I would expand it or follow it up without going back into the trance-like state in which I wrote it, and then I might be engaging with something quite different. What were your ideas, neel?

      I did have an idea for a fantasy novel involving a holy shield, and that may have influenced the image of the shattered magic shield that appears in the poem. I don’t feel ready right now to tackle that possible novel.

      Reply
  2. Maybe you could try writing more poems about the time when the Stonehenge was built, the time when druids existed….like a novella of poems on prehistory….you’ll probably have to do a lot of research and it may turn into a novel, who knows?

    Reply
    • Thanks. I’ll run that idea around in my mind. I find that if I try to write a poem along the lines of, “Ah! I must write a poem about…”, I write a fourth-rate poem. Poems for me must surprise me; but I can get an idea and then it roots some time later: that happened with “Callanish”.

      If I wrote a historical novel it’d be about the English Civil War and Commonwealth (Republic) period as I know a lot about that period and find it fascinating – and can write credible dialogue of the period! If I write a fantasy novel more serious than the one I’m working on now, though, it’d incorporate a lot of what I know about prehistory (which is mainly European prehistory).

      Reply

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