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Orasaigh as Apocalyptic Landscape Poetry

This week, the second of the guest posts from the Poet Steve Ely, further exploring his writing of the poem Orasaigh that our coming exhibition is based on.

Orasaigh as Apocalyptic Landscape Poetry

Orasaigh is perhaps an unusual poem in the context of contemporary English language poetry. It is a long poem in five sections, each of which is rooted in and titled for a specific element of the wider Orasaigh landscape—‘Orasaigh’, ‘An Doirlinn’, ‘The Stones’, ‘The Raven’s Eyrie’ and ‘The Burial Ground’. Each of those sections is further subdivided into between three-and-seven component poems. There are several pages of notes.

Orasaigh and An Doirlinn
Orasaigh and An Doirlinn

Although the poem never loses sight of the island Orasaigh, it nevertheless roams widely across space, time, theme and content. The poem travels in imagination across Uist and the Hebrides more generally, crossing the sounds to Eriskay and Barra, the Little Minch to Skye, across to the mainland and beyond to the world, past, present and future—Neolithic Europe, Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Viking & British Empires, Nova Scotia, HS2, The Wicker Man, Sitting Bull, Jethro Tull, Jimmy Savile, Donald Trump, Brexit, the pink-headed duck and Spix’s macaw—even the allotments in Upton, the Yorkshire village in which I lived at the time I was writing the poem. The poem is catholic, eclectic, whimsical, and diverse, but the island anchors the piece, providing a symbolic and artistic unity.

Technically, Orasaigh is a modernist long poem in the tradition of Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, David Jones’s The Anathemata, Hugh MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, Sorley Maclean’s The Cuillin, John Montague’s The Rough Field and William Carlos William’s Paterson. Like several of those works, the poem is essentially a landscape poem—certainly a poem about a specific and definable place. However, as I’ve said earlier, the poem frequently departs from the island. So, what’s going on?

Ravens on a rock, plotting.

There are two broad ways to write about landscape. One is what might be called objective, observational, representational, realist or naturalist. The writer seeks to give an account of the landscape in question as it is conventionally seen or experienced, but with the verve and skill that somehow ‘makes it new’. Writers like these write about landscape it in concrete, sensory and anecdotal ways that provoke readerly responses such, ‘That’s it!’ ‘That’s exactly what it is like!’ ‘They’ve got it perfectly!’ ‘I can see it, smell it, feel it!’ There’s a sense in which these writers are seeing and articulating on the reader’s behalf—we experience what they see and feel it through their writing. This kind of writing, done well, is vivid, accessible and satisfying. Indeed, I’d go as far as to say that good landscape writing cannot exist without an element of this kind of writing, and certainly I hope there’s some of it in Orasaigh. However, Orasaigh is not primarily an objective poem. Although it begins with observation and the presenting reality of the island, the poem’s method is not primarily to paint a picture in words that reflects the landscape back at the reader, but to use the island to anchor an associative improvisation that, in the process of writing, ultimately became an address to an urgent and vital theme—how can we, as human beings, live individually fulfilling lives in community that enable us to resist the predatory, plutocrat capitalist class that is knowingly and deliberately driving the crisis of the Sixth Extinction to simply to enrich themselves and accrue luxury and power at our and the planet’s expense. In the context of that singular and highly subjective approach, the landscape is transformed, and Orasaigh becomes a paradoxical symbol of hope and precarity in the accelerating catastrophe of the Anthropocene—Orasaigh the poem is a visionary reimagining of Orasaigh the island: not ‘the truth’, but the truth as the poet sees it, and feels compelled to express.

Burial Ground on a cnoc in South Uist
The Burial Ground

Those of us familiar with the New Testament will know that the Greek word for unveiling, revealing or visioning is ‘Apocalypse’—as in The Apocalypse of St. John the Divine—in its revisioning of the landscape, Orasaigh is therefore an Apocalyptic Landscape poem. The eschatological focus of John’s Apocalypse has added another connotation to the popular understanding of the ‘A word’—end-time, or disaster—and this sense of crisis is also present in the poem, making it doubly Apocalyptic. It’s probably been done before (everything has), but, for better or worse, it feels like, in writing Orasaigh, I’ve inadvertently stumbled on a new sub-genre—Apocalyptic Landscape Writing.

Thanks to Steve for this, next week will see part three of Steve's exploration of the poem and more previously unseen photography from the Orasaigh project.

...a scatter of leaning stones, some fallen; plenty more sunk beneath the trampoline sod.


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