Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It! Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

“The Eemis Stane” reconsidered, 1/26/18, via Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Without a complete translation, there can be no complete interpretation. This I realized after re-reading yesterday my post on Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem “The Eemis Stane,” featured January 9 on my blog.

Although I knew the picture was incomplete, I attempted to analyze it anyway. And although I understood much of the poem’s message without full decoding, it is only after making a firm choice of translation between two possibilities originally left in competition, and, thus, better understanding the concepts behind the words, that I see how much difference a complete, more accurate translation makes, especially in poetry.

Accuracy of interpretation suffers when the meaning of individual words remains in doubt, even one or two words. In such a short poem, so economically constructed, indeed every word counts.

By reading again, and by further considering through logic and deduction the context of a certain passage’s uncertain meaning to me, I was able to insert the last major puzzle piece. As I believe I have now come closer to understanding the nature and significance of the poem’s message as a whole, I’d like to share these new revelations with you.

For reference, here’s the original poem and my first translation:

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

And this is the essence of what I said about meaning:

Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. . . .

Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.

There are several reasons why definitively selecting “moss of fame” makes the most sense, and why both “fog/smoky atmosphere” and “foam” do not.

1. Poetically, the translation would have to be very close to “moss of fame” to establish parallelism with the concept and metaphor of “lichen of history.” Each provides a concrete living thing paired with an abstract societal concept. Each image produced is similar to the other in that this concrete living thing obscures in a similar manner to the other, growing on rocks, spreading itself over their surfaces.

Use of connectors: The fact that both moss and lichen are “of” their paired abstract ideas means that those things, fame and history, inherently bring with them these ironically polluting elements. The poet’s choice to join these metaphors so closely in proximity using the word “and” signifies that the distorting natures, or by-products, of fame and history necessarily go hand in hand. In fact, when one considers it further, they are interdependent.

2. The second reason why “fame” is the correct choice is that the words “cut oot i’ the stane” refer to remembrance, part of the point of memorializing being to preserve a legacy, to obtain or solidify some form of fame in the eyes of observers.

3. Crucially, the key reason that unlocked the meaning for me is that the alternative translation creates a conflict in imagery between an active blizzard and lingering fog or smokiness. Physically, such a thing as fog, mist, haze, or smoke would have to be blasted away by the blizzard. They cannot exist in nature in the same space at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. So process of elimination comes in handy here.

4. Finally, combining these pieces of evidence results in a more robust interpretation of message. Look more closely at the behavior of fame and history as depicted in this poem’s parallel metaphors. They not only obscure the truth but also grow continuously like powerful adhesive upon the “unsteady stone,” further destabilizing it, as moss and lichen both grow on a literal headstone or memorial monument.

A distinct tone of cynicism emerges as these negative sides of fame and history appear. The suggestion is that their “growths” continue uninhibited and uninterrupted, with no one and nothing successfully clearing them away to improve the reputation of fame or history and, by extension, of man. They are natural processes but stubborn nuisances as well, insidious and marring or tainting in how they creep in and take over gradually, almost imperceptibly.

At poem’s end, aided by the described effects of fame and history, the final impression the reader receives is quite clear. The speaker condemns the hubris and vanity of a human race that worships and perpetuates both this “moss” and this “lichen,” implying the absence of the opposite qualities because of mankind’s failure to prevent these incursions. Humanity’s alternate course would be to seek and uphold simple, honest, humble truths—the bedrock, as it were, of goodness, integrity, and justice.

Therefore, the poem is an undoubted lament of those particularly incorrigible, wretched human habits that make the world such a precarious, dangerous place for the individual, and its future such a dismal one for all.

What is left to further interpretation is whether the speaker primarily lays blame and scolds the cause or simply reels from and mourns the effects. In other words, is the final question “Can’t you see what you have done?” or “What have you done to me?”?

The former cries out for change while the latter shows a man incapable of finding the words, the power to move beyond suffering–a man whose “eerie memories,” perhaps even of learned language, scatter into fragments on the wind. He forgets how to read at all. The feeling behind the first question is a sense of urgency and some small hope, whereas the second descends into a confused, frightened, and irrevocable despair.

What do you think MacDiarmid is saying?

Are the layers of obscurity, deception, and confusion just too thick after all?

Or, by revealing them, does the speaker become a catalyst for removing them and restoring what lies beneath?

Either way, my question remains, “What then?” Will we like what we find? Do we need it regardless of how we feel about it? Will it matter?

The speaker makes clear that he cannot say. He cannot make out the words, let alone discover their import. He not only cannot provide an answer; he cannot even see to look for it. His impotence blocks even the consideration of possibility.

For that reason, I see the message as one of despair. The speaker describes the fixed laws of the universe—gravity, inertia, the physics of vibration and spinning—as well as the forces of more intimate natures. The blackness, the cold, the blinding weather, the isolation from fellow humans, and the sticky coverings over our past efforts—together they inevitably overpower man, unsteadying the stone on which he lives and making it impossible to see rightly the things around him, one way and another.

So, yes, I think I get it now.

What do you think?


To view or review the original part 6 post, go here.

For all posts in this series, visit my page under the menu tab “Writing Pool,” then “Poetry,” or under “Wild”: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry.

The Glens Trail, Gorge Metro Park

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On May 13, 2017, between my mother’s birthday and Mother’s Day, the husband and I ventured out on a trail in our area to hike and explore for the first time—and what a discovery!

We could almost claim the Glens Trail of Gorge Metro Park for ourselves on that beautiful spring Saturday. Although the parking lot was packed, few locals seem to realize how the Glens’ beauty matches or exceeds that of the Gorge Trail.

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How could we be ignorant of this treasure so nearby?

The park resides in the city limits of Cuyahoga Falls, our former hometown of seven years and the place where both my parents grew up. Aunts, uncles, and their siblings, my folks, came to know the area well during the 50s and 60s.

Back then, I daresay, the natural beauty of the Gorge was taken for granted. To our predecessors, it was just another close place of recreation in which to pass idle childhood moments. They had no idea how unique this playground was.

Its danger, however, became all too familiar to one family member, who shall remain anonymous. Playing hooky from school one day with a friend, this relative fell nearly 100 feet down into the Gorge. We think it was somewhere along this section of the Cuyahoga River bank, if not on what is now the Glens Trail itself.

The friend thought our family member was dead, but luck, providence, or fate would have it that the landing was mercifully soft, though not far from a treacherous boulder. No major head trauma, no broken bones. A bona fide miracle. Next time, there would be no skipping school at the Gorge—only in much safer places.

Nothing so dramatic but the view accompanied our virgin visit to the trail. Although the going wasn’t easy, we know from experience it was easier than if we had taken the Gorge Trail, which is much more vertical, narrower, and rougher. The Glens Trail is almost 2 miles long, out and back; the return is on the same path.

Looking at the park map before arriving, I had expected a lower elevation, riverbed sort of trail. I think we were both pleasantly surprised by the scenic geology and dense greenery.

The Glens Trail runs parallel to the Cuyahoga River, but the trees made river views rare. With daylight waning, most water we could see was either frothed with white foam, trickling from a pipe atop the opposite bank, or more brown than blue from steady current through a shallow river, with its silty sedimentary bed and some urban contamination.

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Investigating the sediment content online led me to learn more about the geologic history of the area. The main features combine shale, sandstone, and conglomerate rock layers.

Most of northeast Ohio is built on Bedford Shale (most easily eroded) overlain by Berea Sandstone (evident at Glens Trail).

The Sharon Conglomerate came later and is the most erosion resistant of the three layers. The best examples of this occur in parks and trails with the word Ledges in their names.

But I also found this note: The most accessible location to view Mississippian and Pennsylvanian rocks, including the Sharon Conglomerate, is in Gorge Park, part of the Metro Parks, Serving Summit County system.” Source: “Bedrock Beneath” at Green City Blue Lake, The Cleveland Museum of Natural History

With glaciation, erosion, damming, pollution, restoration, and now talk of removing certain dams, the Cuyahoga Valley has undergone many changes over the millennia.

The map: Cuyahoga River

The height and sheer faces of the cliffs are breathtaking, an unexpected feature of the trek that made us slow down and look around more than we might have otherwise.

An orphaned slab made way for a partial cave roof that appears to have been used, perhaps centuries ago, for shelter. A soot stain on the “ceiling” suggests repeated fires.

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Birds were plentiful for an afternoon, due to the secluded, protected nature of the trail. We spotted catbird, sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, robins, cardinals, and Canada goose, among others, along with a kind of swallow I’m still not sure of.

I think I’ve narrowed it down to either a bank swallow or a tree swallow. By name, a cliff or cave swallow would make more sense, as it was perched on rock outside a nest in the cliff crevice, but colorings and territory ruled those out. Bank swallows usually nest in colonies in sandy hillside holes, whereas tree swallows nest singly in trees or cavities.

It may have been a juvenile or female tree swallow orIMG_1684_swallow a bank swallow taking its home where it could. As you can probably see, the picture is blurry, so the starker lines between the tree swallow’s blue-green head cap, back, and wings versus white throat, belly, and under tail may have been smudged more softly together. Really, I was lucky to capture its image at all.

“Angry” bird: Robin flings debris in search of food or nesting material.

There were a few narrow parts where ducking was in order and some uneven ground to manage, including hills, but the views, especially of the rocks on our left going out, were well worth the effort. The drop-off is steep, but it’s steeper on the other side of the river.

From the parking lot up the hill at 1160 Front Street, Cuyahoga Falls, visitors have central access to three major trails at Gorge Metro Park, Summit County, Ohio: Glens, Gorge, and Highbridge.

Next time, we’ll try out the Highbridge Trail. Another moderate path, but almost twice as long as the Glens, it should be manageable with sufficient time. Directly opposite the Gorge Trail along the river, Highbridge goes roughly west. Glens goes roughly east.

Although the Gorge is the rock star of the park, the Glens Trail, wandering away alone, also deserves a second look.


Happy trails to you this summer, wherever you find yourself.

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Scottish Color: A Photo Essay

From my trip photo collection, sample the colors and textures of Scotland.

Stirling Castle and environs is one of the most colorful places on Scottish soil. From the castle’s view of varied shades of green hills and darker trees, to rows of gray houses below and its flagged, green terraces above flower gardens, to the sumptuous tapestries, royal bedroom furniture, majestic banners, interactive kids’ exhibits, period re-enactors, to paintings and fabrics on wall, floor, and ceiling, this historic seat of power is well worth more than one visit. And don’t forget the Wallace National Monument on the next tree-covered hill to the northeast.

Besides being uniquely spectacular in mountain majesty, Glencoe is Glen Colorful. Most striking to me in contrast to shorter deciduous-covered hills of the Ohio Valley and the sharper, starker, browner Rocky Mountains in the States are the blankets of green that cover the slopes of many of these ancient peaks in the Scottish Highlands. It’s my kind of green mountain.

Some leafy trees sprinkle about them, creep up their sedimentary seams where the water rushes to the bottom. But some later-installed conifers in Argyll, the Cairngorms, and periodically up the Great Glen impose themselves like patches of black-on-black tartan made too small for its wearer. Forestry efforts compete with natural beauty. The most prized evergreens are the Caledonian forests of Scots pine, now mere remnants in the country.

All over Scotland, with a high average rainfall, green is the go-to background color. Lichens, mosses, grasses and ferns are just a few of the non-arboreal results of this pervasive canvas. Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh and the plethora of green spaces in Glasgow, which means “dear green place” from the (correction) “green hollow” in Gaelic, attest to green’s primacy in Scotland.

Red is another dominant hue in both wild and domestic Scotland. Red deer, red squirrels, Highland cows, some spray-painted sheep, and various burgundy, rust, and orange and yellow flora mingle with the greens. Ferns fade into bracken with the fall, and heather pops magenta-purple and then fizzles grey into autumn across the country’s vast moors and storied glens. Sandstone is the other big red. The Beauly Priory is a breathtaking example of ruins made largely of red sandstone.

Lilac purples add magic to the greens and reds in both sun and shade, not just with the plentiful heather but with foxgloves, gems in cultivated gardens, and of course, the national flower, the thistle. But many flowers and plants retain their bright colors well into winter, re-blooming periodically, and the typical temperate-zone transition from green summer into red, yellow, orange, and brown fall happens in Scotland, too.

Sheep are everywhere, like the grass they munch, and you probably know what that looks like. The flocks power the long-standing textile industry of wool and tweed in Scotland. Tartan long ago sported muted tones that blended with the natural landscape. After having been banned by the Crown following the Jacobites’ defeat at the 1746 Battle of Culloden, tartan’s revival in the late 1800s brought with it a flashier spectrum. Today, even women and girls can benefit from the plentiful choices in feminine shades among the clan-based plaids available at tourist shopping hot spots.

The waters of life in the land of Scots range from root-beer rapids of brown and foam along the walking paths at Carie Forest near Loch Rannoch, Perthshire, to the golden gamut of whiskies forged in distilleries from the islands to the northern Highlands, to the deep-sea and turquoise blues of clear-sky-reflecting burns, rivers, firths, bays, and lochs. Modern Scotland has done its best with drinking water bottled from mountain sources, and then its worst in the hopelessly sugary, bubble-gum-flavored orange soda that is the national drink, Irn Bru.

The British tea tradition also persists, alive and well in both city and countryside. A venture to Glasgow’s Willow Tea Room, designed by the celebrated Charles Rennie Mackintosh, gave my husband good Kenyan black tea and me some aromatic Jasmine green tea, neatly cut finger sandwiches, and a gluten-free chocolate brownie topped with clotted cream. I finished all of my teapot’s worth with pleasure, and I’m not even much of a tea drinker.

I guess it was the blend of artistic atmosphere, my first real experience of tea time, and a well-chosen tea. Making it more memorable was an inchworm Jason discovered on his jacket from recent outdoor adventures. In and out of sight, we kept him alive till I dropped him accidentally on the stairway as we left. His ultimate fate is a mystery.

It was also in Glasgow that we learned about the Glasgow Boys group of artists and the Scottish colourists featured in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Influences from French Impressionists to “Whistler’s Mother,” and of course Scottish landscapes, informed their work over the years. There are life waters, watercolours, and water horses in Scotland. Modern architecture like the Kelpies, at the Helix car park and recreation center near Falkirk, celebrates the country’s artistic and industrial traditions, while one white and one black horse graze at the site of the Culloden Battlefield.

Wild bird coloring is not all that different from home. The British robin redbreast is a distinctly different species from our American robin, a rounder, more petite orange-breasted songbird with a song that sounds prettier to my untrained ear than that of the omnipresent States-side version. I knew about that difference before landing in Scotland, but I was surprised to see the dapper-looking pheasant hanging around the farm bird feeders at the breakfast windows of our luxury B&B near Inverness.

Not quite ring-necked, this male turns out to be the common pheasant of the UK, introduced to Roman Britain as a game bird from Asia. His aristocratic associations befitted our romantic, up-scale portion of the trip, evidenced by the rich red and white furnishings amidst the dark four posts of the bed and the crystalline bed-side dimmer lamps. They even gave us complimentary Ferrero Rocher truffles and a crystal of sherry and two champagne glasses.

There’s a variety of local color in soccer jerseys on display at the National Museum of Scottish Football at Hampden Park, Glasgow, home of the Queen’s Park Rangers and the Scottish National Team. But some of the most colorful parts of Scotland are still its people. The dialects, sensibilities, hotel and B&B personnel, street performers, musicians including guitarists, accordianists, bagpipers, and fiddlers, cab drivers, store cashiers, theatre players, tourism workers from receptionists to historical figure actors, mostly courteous drivers we encountered, and everyday people were always, for better or worse, innocuous, pleasant, and helpful. Good for us tourists, certainly.

Whites, blacks, and greys in the buildings, ruins, and stone monuments pulled us back in time to the mysteries of archaeological evolution. That is, the presence alone of chambered cairns and standing stone circles fascinates, but it’s even more interesting to learn of the layers of change their shapes represent, the multiple peoples and purposes that swept through a given place, obscuring the earlier inhabitants and users, muddling the picture of a Pict or a Scot or an Angle or a Roman. The clues keep bubbling to the surface in diverse ways, and their hunt can become an obsession, and a literary inspiration in the cases of authors such as Diana Gabaldon of the Outlander series.

Whether you’re one for science or for literature, which Gabaldon and I both are, the romance of the past is real, palpable, just as the puzzles, if not the ghosts, left by the remnants beckon the solvers forward. Ruins, especially religious ones even to this agnostic, possess the most affecting beauty of all historic buildings, and the monoliths are at least figuratively magnetic. Ruins speak in a steady voice of struggle, violence, survival, and death. They show the creativity, innovation, reverence, passions, sorrows, and daily subsistence of peoples long gone, and sometimes they demonstrate long periods of thriving, the revival of resilient groups, and the diligence of those dedicated to preserving history and memory.

At the Clava Cairns, I touched some of the piled stones as I walked into the center of one chambered cairn, but semi-unconsciously, I avoided touching the split standing stones. The stones at this site are said to have inspired Gabaldon’s invention of Craigh na Dun, the central plot mechanism–strange and terrifying–of the entire Outlander saga. The ubiquitous nature of stone and stonework in Scotland adds an indescribable charm to visiting this old country when one’s own is so young by contrast, but the stories they inspired are what sent me there.

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The Writers’ Museum, Edinburgh

There’s no generalizing Scotland, and yet the tourist tends heavily toward equating places with their people. In the end, they are inextricable, multi-dimensional, many-layered and intriguing enough to merit repeat exploration.

Besides, I just love to hear Scots speak, even if I don’t understand them the first time, or, in the case of Glaswegians, the second or third. Although I’ve seen a lot, I hope I’ll get another chance to practice listening in Scotland.

All photos copyright C.L. Tangenberg

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Five-Phrase Friday (21): Original Poetry

As we labor to steel ourselves for many long weeks of winter, who in the Northern Hemisphere doesn’t need a little summer right about now? If you’re among the needless (heh), I grant you permission to skip this post.

The rest of us can imagine a lush, cool forest in full summer where the green flora are still bright without the sun. Let us not indulge our fondness of sunshine too much, especially in picturing an Ohio summer where clouds are apt to reign, lest we never come back from fantasy to live our real lives (whatever those are).

Five little phrases of poetry might just be enough to warm your brains for a victorious battle against seasonal affective disorder and any lingering post-holiday hangovers. First composed in 2001 during a visit to Hocking Hills State Park in south central Ohio, what follow are excerpted lines from my freshly revised poem Ode to Cantwell Cliffs:

  1. the greenest / moss-kissed stones I’ve seen.
  2. Fern’s kind of delight— / in one vale, fresh spinach,  . . . lime green Jell-O or young / avocado, best seen in shade / after the rain.
  3. falls of fountain ale ensconce / a vast buffet
  4. assert themselves / in black and green tartan, / like a heady Guinness pint / wrapped in Maypole strands.
  5. to be, to pass, / to climb, to stir a trail of green / to my sight and sense

Now break out those light boxes, eat your spinach for iron, citrus to prevent scurvy, crank up your summery photo slide shows, and pour another cup of coffee . . . or Guinness, or a bright, sweet cocktail. Whatever it takes. After all, it’s the weekend, and the obdurate face of winter looms large.

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