A poet and a photographer combine their visions to describe an ancient place of deep meditation
ORKNEY: PICTURES AND POEMSSkip to next paragraph
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By Gunnie Moberg and George Mackay Brown
Colin Baxter Photography Ltd.
112 pp., 20
In an island, time is a simple pure circle.
The line is from a recently published poem by George Mackay Brown (1921-1996). Brown, a prolific source of poems, novels, short stories, and other forms of writing all closely connected with his native Orkney, had islands - and the concept of pure circles and cycles of time - in his veins.
Orkney, at the northeastern tip of mainland Scotland, across the Pentland Firth, is not, strictly speaking, "an" island. It is 67 islands. Sixteen of them are inhabited by people and cows; many more by birds. Even a hasty visitor (the only kind of visitor I have so far been) to this remote outpost of Britain immediately senses that to Orcadians, the archipelago is unquestionably the center of the known universe. It makes all those other places elsewhere seem peripheral and distant.
Brown was no visitor: He was virtually the one-man literary genius of Orkney, its voice.
Two books of poems by GMB (as he is familiarly known) have been published this year: "Following a Lark" and "Orkney: Pictures and Poems." Both books have turned out to be posthumous. (Both are available only in Britain.)
The second book was unusual in its genesis. Brown's writing and Gunnie Moberg's photographs have been published side-by-side before. But on this occasion, the poems were written in direct response to the photographs. The Swedish-born photographer, who has lived on Orkney for 20 years (and in Scotland for almost 30) was not asked to illustrate a text; the procedure was the other way around.
For about six months, she lent Brown prints of the photographs she had chosen for the book, which was to be published at the opening of a first retrospective of her work (on show at the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, through July 13). The images were propped on an easel, several at a time, in Brown's sitting room. Moberg had asked him just for short captions. But secretly - until the final drafts - he wrote full-fledged poems, 48 in all.
Photographs and words together form an unusual procession of contemplative insights into the small part of the world that poet and photographer know so intimately.
There is a certain rightness about the Scandinavian nationality of the photographer. Although the Orkney Islands have been Scottish since 1468, their links before that were all with Scandinavia. As with Shetland, farther north still, Gaelic is not spoken in Orkney. Most of the place names here have a Norse ring to them. (Hypothetically, the Viking occupation was preceded by Picts and the "first Orcadians" spoke a Celtic language.) The main island used to be called "Hrossey," Norse for "horse island." GMB's poems are punctuated with such local names as Scapa Flow, Rinansay, Swona, Hamnavoe, and Egilsay.
Even though Orkney is the theme of the book, there is an intriguing counterpoint between its two covers. Brown could never be called an abstract writer. But Moberg's photographs do sometimes tend in that direction, as if the scale or specificity of a close-up rock pool or an aerial view over the land - an isolated church casting long morning shadows - have taken on a new and independent life of color and texture and light as photographs.
Brown rather literally brings them down to earth. He sees them as places. His verse is quietly informative, as if he realized the need to make these poems act as captions.
It is interesting to know that while Moberg recently had a period when she gave up photography because she felt it was too tied to "what's there," Brown was preoccupied undeviatingly with a theme and a subject, and he knew it. He never ceased to explore and re-explore its meanings and implications.
While Brown's concerns are the times and history - the folk history above all - of the place that absorbed him, Moberg mainly provides a sense of the landscape, both near and far.