'Cairn: Poems for the Isle of Lewis' by Gerard Rochford (Malfranteaux Concepts)
As the title states, this collection of 34 poems circles around a particular theme. Almost all of the poems refer to stones or islands, if not directly then in memory, and all are cut gems, sparkling with the light of sun, sky or glinting reflections off the granite stones. This collection features many birds – geese, eagles, skylarks and a 'balletic osprey' – which immediately draw our attention to the vastness of the sky over the islands of the Outer Hebrides. On the land, standing stones, stone circles, stones on a beach, give a variety of colours through their contact with water and through the lichen that grows on them. Through these vivid descriptions that sketch like 'flicked paint/a canvas of remains' we come to appreciate both the range – the very enormity of sky bringing it closer to us – and the subtlety of the palette of the islands.
If there are contrasts – as in 'Leaving Lewis' – between urban and island, these seem to belong more to the human mind with its need for division and its capacity for setting past alongside present in imagination:
I remember a man
bending over water,
like a heron,
fishing on a Sunday
under threatening skies,
an eagle circling.
These 'threatening skies' also remind us of the risk and danger of going against the decree of doing anything pleasurable on the Sabbath day, brilliantly captured in 'Back Home in Lewis' where
...Sundays divide the people
where the minister waits, like black ice,
for their slide into forgiveness and remorse.
But the gift of the islands themselves, portrayed here, is to link and join the elements and sea, the sky and earth, the river with ocean, the people with land and nature, the stones with each other.
In 'Gaelic Psalms' though there are 'men in mourning' and 'a people who give and give/expecting a hard answer to their prayers' the land has a gift of its own to give people – not one of urban ease and comfort maybe, but the purity of the air, the scale and shapes of rock and pervasive light, invoking a 'surging love' which will return them like the tides, to the islands' shores, if not bodily then in their memories and thoughts.
Gerard Rochford's poems play with the concept of home, whether in travel or migration, in spaces that can appear empty, in cultivation of the land, or in tradition. They are like proffered invitations to us, the readers, written in black scrawls of seaweed and dark birds against a background of beach and sea. These wild places are never romanticised for, as he says, 'no-one could own such a land but figures of stone'. And the cover photograph of the Calanais stones does show an intriguing group of figures, some close together in conversation, some wrapped in shawls, others standing back, contemplating that close and cloud-filled sky.