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Stone Circle

by James Graham 

Posted: 15 September 2005
Word Count: 328
Summary: The second Orkney poem. I'm trying here to write about the vast time-gap between us and the neolithic people - and how that gap seems, sometimes and in some places, suddenly to close.
Related Works: Kirbuster Farm Museum, Orkney • 

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Stone Circle

The most I've ever done is sense a ghost: not see,
but sense. No more perhaps than think it possible.

The people are all here. My embassy to them
is overtaxed; my best interpreter is at a loss
to excavate away the midden of time, the plastic

language of money and explosives. We need to get
a lot of tinpots on the skip before we talk, discard
celebrity, employment, entertainment, leisure,

down through the strata to these ghosts. But then -
if my interpreter were minded to flesh out, or cherry-pick,
talk up a little what he manages to hear -

I'd like to hear him say there was no power,
no beaded idle chieftain in the Maeshowe tomb,
but the finest quarryman only buried there,

the honoured handaxe-maker and the bard,
they only, buried there when their bones were clean,
and after ceremony within this circle.

It is August now in my time and language,
when the leaves on the ghosts of ancient trees
begin to yellow, and the grain is ready

to be sweated from its chaffy stubbornness
into winter food. This season, there is plenty.
These folk to whom I cannot speak, my devious

ambassador informs me, will gather here again,
playing on bird-bones, dancing for the harvest;
and in the season for betrothals, when young men

and girls from all the islands, and the great southern land,
will come to choose and to be chosen. Did you, I ask
in my patois overgrown with history, bring these great stones

from Yesnaby cliffs, and stand them upright here,
for anything less? For nothing less, I am told;
indeed for more besides: to acknowledge the Sun, receive

its messages, to let it speak in the darkest part
of the tomb at the Winter solstice; and most of all
to honour all the dead whose blood is in us.

I fancy I make out a word, a phrase.
Time clears like a sea-mist. I translate.

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Comments by other Members

joanie at 19:54 on 15 September 2005  Report this post
Mmm...I have printed this off, I have poured a glass of wine, and I am about to indulge myself. I shall return!



I have made a decision to take this poem (having printed it off, as I said!) to a Viking stone circle near my house. I'll keep you posted.

Elsie at 20:57 on 15 September 2005  Report this post
Hi James, this is amazing, it seems to take me on a journey, subtly shifting. I don't what else to say really, but I really enjoyed it.

Ticonderoga at 15:04 on 17 September 2005  Report this post
There is a seance-like feel to this; your 'spirit guide' helping you commune with the past and its people. May write more later. Very beautiful and moving.


joanie at 18:39 on 19 September 2005  Report this post
Well, James, I am in the middle of doing a bit of research. I took this print-off to a nearby Viking burial ground - not 'stone circle' as I said previously. I was alone in the wind, surrounded by ancient graves and the stone outline of a chapel, looking out to sea, and I felt the closing lines!

'I'd like to hear him say' is very poignant; there is such a feeling that the writer is desperate for the guide to be wrong. However, you have also conveyed strongly that it doesn't matter what the official line is, 'the finest quarryman' deserves to be buried there.

the honoured handaxe-maker and the bard,
they only, buried there when their bones were clean,
and after ceremony within this circle.

I'm going to go to Meayll Circle next; a Neolithic stone circle.
the site is a megalithic chambered tomb covering an 18 metre diameter circle. There are six pairs of graves believed to be from the late Neolithical or early Bronze Age. The site has seen a long history from the Neolithic to Medieval times.

I am enjoying the read and discovering more. It's quite exciting!


engldolph at 20:29 on 20 September 2005  Report this post
Hi James,

Like many of your other poems, this one has deep and effective sense of place and time combined with a scathing view on contemporary world. You can tangibly feel the writer in this stone circle willing in the voices from the past. The past finally talking to you…and being able to translate some meaning.

I like the idea looking back to another era in search of a deeper meaning of life… but being hampered by the thick layer of tinpots (dictators) and layers of dross of contemporary life. A good metaphor I think.

But there is also a hint of ambivalence..in that you are wanting to hear the part of the past which is noble, which celebrates builders and bards rather than kings…but you also know you are selectively “cherry-picking” … …but perhaps, if we could throw off our “patois overgrown with history”, we might even get something beyond our nostalgic expectation… I quite liked this aspect, as you stop it being too glossily nostalgic...invites the reader to think about going to these kind of places and throwing away our preconceptions and our guide books, and just being there and listening.

I liked the ideas of the first few stanzas, almost like a preface… but really loved the poetry in everything that followed. It is August now… Emotion and expression takes over from ideas and politics. This second half could almost stand alone. But it does fit in the overall flow of starting in a place with ideas and slowly losing yourself…and then discovering the voices…

A couple of thoughts..

I wonder if “ghosts” is the best word. I know this is what we are looking for..ghosts of the past…but the word is too laden with popular images for me …halloween ghosts / spooky ghosts / scary ghosts in creaky old houses.. I think you are looking for the “past” …The most I have ever done is sense the past… or a word that captures that.

The line
to honour all the dead whose blood is in us
seemed to be the perfect ending line…

Very much enjoyed.

James Graham at 21:31 on 20 September 2005  Report this post
Thanks all for reading and commenting. Joanie, it would be interesting to know if you have any similar - or different - thoughts as you stand at the stone circle and chambered tomb.

It was interesting that you saw the 'ambassador' as an official guide to the site. For me the 'embassy' idea was entirely in my own head (there wasn't a guide at the circle, though there was one at the nearby chambered tomb). It was a way of trying to say something that at first nearly defied expression - to convey a powerful sense of closeness to these neolithic people, a sympathy and liking, a feeling that if they had actually turned up that day I could have talked with them. What nonsense, the head tells the heart, you don't even know what their language was like, and even if you did, their frames of reference would be so different that communication would be minimal at best. So I needed to invent an invisible 'guide' - more like the 'spirit guide' that Mike mentions - to somehow bridge the time gap. The heart wins in the poem though - I hope - as the feeling of closeness did at the actual place. The 'spirit guide' is bypassed at the end.

But where you read it as the writer wanting the official guide to be wrong, that's a meaning I can take on board very easily. The guide can be seen as a kind of interpreter between past and present. I could see the idea of an 'ambassador' as being based on an official guide.

Maybe you'll let us know a little about your visit to the stone circle and chambered tomb - in verse, even?


James Graham at 21:34 on 20 September 2005  Report this post
Hi, Mike. You posted your comment while I was posting mine, which is why I haven't answered it. Will respond soon.


Ticonderoga at 15:03 on 21 September 2005  Report this post
'At the intersection of the timeless moment'...................'Scotland and nowhere, never and always.' These, adapted, phrases from Eliot came to mind as I re-read this, James, and I think that's an indication of the extraordinary richness of the piece. As you know, I 'm not mad about, or particularly good at, exegesis, but one strand in this that I particuarly enjoyed was the celebratiuon of the maker and the makar before and above the monarch. It also reminded me of Yeats - yes, him again - and, 'Sing the peasantry/ and THEN the high-born..........'
The other person your work often also brings to mind for me is Kurt Vonnegut; you have the same seemingly effortless ability to 'float' the reader between zones in time and space.



James Graham at 17:11 on 21 September 2005  Report this post
Mike (engl) - thanks for such a perceptive comment. You spotted something I'd thought was hidden. You saw that the poem changes at 'It is August...'. To begin with I had an asterisk between the two parts, but got rid of it. I don't think it's really two poems. What you say about starting in a place with ideas to the fore, and then losing these to the experience of 'just being there and listening' confirms this for me. The preoccupation with 21st century stuff goes with the initial sense of being so separated by aeons of time, and the sense that you need to dig down through strata to get anywhere near these ancient people. But all this disappears when the sense of closeness takes over. The gulf of time goes from being solid earth and stone to being a sea-mist.

I'll weigh up the idea of taking out the first two lines and the last two, because this theme of gradually coming 'closer' to the neolithic people is still probably contained in the body of the poem, and it allows 'to honour all the dead whose blood is in us' to be the last line.

'Ghosts' - all sorts of words have marginal, popular, frivolous connotations. I think you just have to use them anyway, and hope the reader will see in a serious context that the frivolous associations aren't relevant.

t'other Mike - the wish that the bard, the makar, should be buried in Maes Howe tomb was something that moved me too. It was probably not so in reality, sad to say; it was a chieftain and his family, more likely. As for Vonnegut - you've no idea how being compared with Vonnegut makes my day! But I have to read Vonnegut (and Yeats, and Blake) with suitable humility.


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