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Poetry Steve Ely
Photography Michael Faint
Selected text and photographs
Orasaigh is a collaboration between poet Steve Ely and photographer Michael Faint, inspired by the landscape around the tidal island of Orasaigh, located on the coast of South Uist at Boisdale.
Ely’s visionary poem, whilst always remaining anchored in the island, roams widely, exploring a range of themes related to Uist and the wider world – sea level rise, the crisis of the ‘sixth extinction’, history, culture, politics, conflict and class. Faint’s powerful photographs vividly capture the spirit of the place, creating an independent yet complementary subjectivity.
The work of the two artists combines and interacts to produce a uniquely evocative response to a rich and resonant landscape in a work that affirms the vitality and resilience of the human spirit, with the island itself becoming a dual symbol of precarity and hope in the crisis of the Anthropocene.
Broken Sleep Books will be publishing Orasaigh in 2024. A selection of the work was first shown at Cnoc Soilleir, South Uist in mid-2023. A larger exhibition including innovative 3d soundscapes is hosted by Taigh Chearsabhagh in Lochmaddy from November 4th 2023.
Orasaigh, the double-humped tidal island
on the beach off the edge of the Boisdale machair,
still moored to her mother by the sand umbilicus
she fashions herself from the silts of the longshore drift.
She rises on her strand like a sagging frame tent,
or the sunken withers of a sea-ware pony;
two shaggy rorquals, breaking the swell
from the Sound of Barra, frozen on the curve
towards Hirte and the Greenland seas.
The beach-stripping blitzkrieg of winter storms
and the rising tides of the gnawing Atlantic
have frayed, but not in centuries severed,
her squat tombolo’s hawser. She will not let go
of the land that birthed her and to which she still belongs.
From halfway across the machair—between the abandoned
burial ground and the gutted net station—
the island rises from the swell like Surt.
I can feel the shush and thump of ocean,
breathe the beach’s warm kelp breeze.
Patrolling herring gulls monitor my approach
and gannets plunge from the sky’s high tower—
then the wind’s in my face on the low dunes’ ridge,
and there, beyond the precarious, hop-across causeway,
the storm-ripped ruin of An Doirlinn and the crab boats’
wedge of white van landing—twin-papped, raven-crested
Orasaigh stands on its strand before me.
Low tide. I pick my way between wrack-matted boulders
and banks of rotting kelp to the storm-gouged gate
to the island. Turf sags above the sand-cliff,
the edge of collapse. A brace of shelduck
bob out on the heave, ducklings strung
like rosary beads between them. Weather-wrecked
stump posts, damp plateau of cotton-grass,
silverweed, bent. Corncrake crexing from the iris beds,
scissor-billed oystercatchers bombing and screaming.
Neolithic, Bronze Age or Pictish stones rise from the turf
like curious seals and note my bold approach.
I climb the slope to the Big Top summit
in the stripes of the evening sun’s relief;
sheep paths, turf-sunk boundary walls, run-rig shadows
of long-abandoned plough.
An Doirlinn | The Stones
Surf breaks on Tràigh na Doirlinn and rushes
up the beachface. Clockwork sanderling
switchback in the swash-zone like speeded up footage
from a silent film, picking tiny titbits
from the foam. They’re fuelling up for Iceland
and Franz Josef Land beyond, the ever-receding
Arctic edge of the Holocene interglacial.
A whippet flies in and the sanderling lift and scatter,
flashing twittering chevrons down the beach
towards the headland at Cille Pheadair.
Uprush wipes their footprints’ blurred cuneiform.
How many billion sanderling have stopped-off here,
since ice-melt stretched the north from Spain?
This beach is good for the wreckers of dead cetaceans,
the scavengers and collectors: the lumbar vertebrae
of a pothead blackfish, somewhere in the shed;
the mandible blades of a minke whale,
lost to the tides or a rival necrophiliac
when I dallied too long at the Polochar Inn;
the digital image of the Risso’s dolphin, torn open
and wolfed by a slaughter of gleeful ravens.
What else does the kindly ocean bring?
Mary’s Nut, Sea Purse, sixty-foot trunks
of shock-root loblolly pine; skraelings stitched
into buckskin thongs, unravelling bark canoes.
Puffins, seals and narwhals. A case of Spey Royal.
A naked lady with bitten-off fingers
washed up from Tràigh Siar.
Open your arms, and embrace
the evening sun. For the hundred and twenty degrees
of your span, all you can see is the squinting gold of ocean:
sun-swallower, storm-bringer, bearer of bounty,
edge of the knowable world. Due north is the foam-fringed
diamond-head of Rubha Àird a' Mhuile, ground further down
on its sea-level stump with every passing year.
To the south, across her horse-plunged sound,
spreads womanly Barra, the cleft between Heabhal
and Hartabhul, mirroring Orasaigh’s own.
A bead drawn roughly east-north-east takes the eye
through the clefted rifle sights of Càireasbhal’s
microcosmic stones, and beyond to the cleave
of Coire na Cuilc, between many-breasted
Triuirebheinn and Choinnich.
The Burial Ground
A wonky, walled-off acre, enclosing
an ancient settlement mound, its ten-metre contour
of stratified dead. ‘Supposed site of a chapel’,
where the Great Bull of Boisdale
seceded from the faith of Rome and joined
the cult of Mammon. Four dilapidated vaults,
a scatter of leaning stones, some fallen;
plenty more sunk beneath the trampoline sod.
The three-foot, drystone wall is topped
with a grey steel, chain-link fence, to protect
the dead from the blasphemies of sheep.
Or cage their vengeful ghosts. Rabbits collapse
the lichened walls and starlings hurtle in-and-out
of gaps between the stones; once a lapwing
trailed its wing across the mounded graves.
Low tide laps and swells around the island,
a mile or two higher than it was five thousand years ago.
It will open the graves of the burial ground
and scatter the bones in the North Atlantic Drift.
A motorhome drops beneath the dunes;
ravens vaporise in the flare of the evening sun;
the black-backed gull has vanished. Cyclonic thunderheads
bleed their inks on the crab boat’s west horizon.
The follicles of the cotton grass are rising.
Five thousand years of immaterial culture,
life on the literal edge—Hebrides, falling slowly.
Corncrakes crexing from the eight-inch grass
fall silent at my footsteps: they slink invisible
through the bent and resume their duel behind me.
Subsidy keeps them from shredding by combines,
and tourism chips in its quota—car stickers
proclaiming I Slept With Corncrakes, twittered
encounters with white-tailed eagles on the slope
below Beinn Mhòr. Raised fingers at every passing place.
The café and gift shop at the Kildonan Museum.
Yesterday’s paper at Dalabrog Co-op.
Otter loping up the beach; turning, loping back.
The whippet doesn’t know what it is.
Wreck of rotting kelp, front-bucketed
into the dripping trailer with a brace
of stiff gannets, flotsam from distant Sula
Further to the initial collaboration, Taigh Chearsabhagh commissioned the Ivor Novello nominated musician in residence Duncan Macleod to create a soundscape composition.
Steve Ely is an award-winning poet and writer based in Yorkshire. His books include The European Eel (2021), Lectio Violant (2021) and Englaland (2015). Two further books, Eely and Orasaigh (a collaboration with photographer Michael Faint) are forthcoming in 2024. He teaches creative writing at the University of Huddersfield, where he is Director of the Ted Hughes Network.
Michael Faint is a photographer based on the Isle of South Uist whose work concentrates on the landscapes of the Outer Hebrides. Shortlisted for the Sony World Photography Awards, his work can be seen in exhibitions throughout the Outer Hebrides and beyond while his images are published nationally and internationally. 2024 will bring the publication of the groundbreaking collaboration Orasaigh with the poet Steve Ely and a book from his work with the award-winning Uist Unearthed project.
Steve Ely & Michael Faint
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