Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Tuesday Poem: 'Stone' by Em Strang

1


The Nights are the hardest.
It’s the time of year, the harsh wind.
But the truth is
the horses have left; they’re not lost.

“Excuse me, I’ve lost two horses.
One’s grey with pit-black eyes
and the other’s called Nightbird.
Have you seen them?”

Her yard is awash with the wind - rolling buckets
and bits of plastic flicking in the gloom.
She’s standing there in old black boots
and trousers two sizes too big for her.
She’s familiar, but I don’t know how.

“Neither seen nor heard,” she smiles.

But she knows what horses look like.
She knows they have strong legs and tails,
that they cross fields we can’t see,
from one white world to another,
somewhere warmer, somewhere brighter.

I’m waiting in the cold with a straight back
and broad shoulders, trying to hold the place up;
to slow things down and bring something back,
not just my horses. . .


Extract from Stone by Em Strang
illustrated by Mat Osmond
Reproduced with permission
Published by Atlantic Press, 2016
www.atlanticpressbooks.com

I listened to Em Strang perform this long sequence at The Stove in Dumfries.  The curtains were drawn, the candles were lit and in the audience there was the silent anticipation of storytelling.  Hearing a poem actually performed, from memory, is a wonderful thing.  It comes alive as part of a dialogue between poet and listener.  The performance was further electrified by Em Strang’s elegiac interjections into the poem, between sections, in another language. It sounded like Old Norse, or Icelandic - ancient, declamatory, pleading - and it made the hair on the back of the neck stand up. Later, Em explained that the sounds are made in the demands of the moment, like improvised music.  In another place and time it would have been called ‘speaking in tongues’.  In the room above the café at The Stove it had a shamanic quality and it suited the poem, which has all the characteristics of a folk tale - mysterious, dark, and powerful.

It begins with the arrival of a stranger:

“I’ve brought you something,” she says,
putting her hand in her pocket
and holding the thing out.

But, like most of the gifts in fairy tales, this one is loaded with significance.

The gift is hidden in a rag
and weighs more than I thought.

It is a stone, smooth and perfectly shaped as an egg. Things begin to go wrong, the horses leave and even the climate begins to behave differently.

The long, cold nights begin in May or June
and seem to go on forever
as though there are no years anymore,
there are no seasons.
In February I’ve seen hawthorn flower
and fruit swell
and swallows come.

It’s hard to tell,
but the horses left in June, I think.

The illustrations, by Mat Osmond, fit the text beautifully.  This is a poem I will go back to often.   If you get the chance to listen to Em Strang performing Stone, then don’t miss it!

Stone
by Em Strang
Illustrated by Mat Osmond
Published by Atlantic Press
www.atlanticpressbooks.com


Em Strang is one of the editors of the Dark Mountain Project and her first collection, Bird-Woman, is coming out with Shearsman in September 2016.

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