THE NEW SHILLIN’/A SCARCE OF TATTIES/SWEENEY’S BUTTERMILK
As they do each Thursday, the fiddlers gather to play
the old songs in Hamnovoe Hall. I crowd in,
take a seat, leave off the Atlantic wind chill and a weak sun,
letting the long day settle. In the ramble of tunings,
I play at the long divisions of memory,
subtracting part from whole, reducing scale to bare brae.
Bowstrings strike notes that spirit past me to stone jamb
and pebbled souterrain, the slabbed lintel always the first
to ruin, gable of the stone wall level with the sheep’s dull eye.
Through the rusted gate-pry
and yellow weeds, the slipjig of the mind, road-weary,
enters. When I paused early this evening the keel-sling
of the St. Sunniva drew leeward into Lerwick.
My first step onto the Shetlands improvised each day’s horizon
pursued along the northern way,
an uncertain arrival, the road receding on
like a skiff tail-winded, running high and low the wave riffs,
pitching up gulls. Bows taunt to the pulled tune,
the jigs round off almost slack-shouldered and Appalachian.
I feel toe-tap and knee-slap along the wooden floor,
the whole lot of us in the hall loosening up. The youngest there,
a girl, played each set with her eyes closed to some darkness
like the evening sky, becoming the lightfall of music,
the descending scale, and always, her eyes opening on that final note
as if to gesture up sunrise and the morning’s straight-away.
—from Rattle #13, Summer 2000
Philip Arnold: “Often I’m able to combine my two favorite activities: travel and poetry. This poem recalls a particular memory as I biked from the Scottish Highlands, through the Orkneys, on my way to the Shetland Islands.” (web)