The starting point for these two poems by Stewart Sanderson was German ethnographer Werner Kissling's 1935 documentary, A Poem of Remote Lives, which you can watch below.
A Poem of Remote Lives
Poor Werner’s film of Eriskay
begins, again, inside my head:
a twenty-minute history
of moments less inhabited.
I let that grey world float away.
Facing America, it waits
for nothing in particular;
for you perhaps. I watch the streets
under my window darken, far
from Eriskay and its defeats.
All round me, tenements light up.
Glasgow is full of Christmas trees.
Once more, I fill a well-used cup
with tea, letting the liquid rise
up to the chipped ceramic lip.
Once more I sit, dragging a pen
over a white unyielding page.
At last a word comes out, and then
another. So much pointless rage
whispers my inner acumen.
The poem grows like crotal, scrip
by scrap on rocks of metaphor.
An hour and you will be asleep
I guess. Somewhere behind my door
yours lies, in wastes of numbered sheep.
Somewhere outside this room, your life
will carry on, after the ink
has dried; the poem come to grief
or saved itself. Again, I think
of Eriskay; that I would give
it to you for safekeeping but
can’t quite – my image of the place
I mean. I picture it, afloat
out there off Europe’s western face.
Perhaps we are not less remote.
Eighty years ago a camera pans
slowly across a Hebridean bay
imprisoning the place in its dark lens;
saving the moment for another day
to wonder at. Steeped in opacity
somewhere behind the lens a watchful man
steadies the shot. He rescues what he can.
Out of the world comes rock; comes water, still
in its incessant movement. People come
a little later, breaking from the whole
on wings of thought. The burden of a name
follows soon after, and is not quite the same
the world over. Into the film a voice
comes now, our best redemption and our vice.
The commentary drifts through crotal, rope;
from wool to waulking songs while Eriskay,
uncomprehending in its hopeless sleep,
its sleepless hopefulness, says nothing. Grey
and lonely, it replies to these R.P.
pronouncements on itself with rustling grass,
sheep cries, white breakers crashing as they pass.
Only occasionally will a wave
of muted speech be audible beneath
the island’s background sough. When from the grave
of withered mouths it falters into breath
for seconds at a time, I lay my wreath
of nearly understanding. Càit an robh
mo ghaol? They had no word for yes or no.
Bha i air Èirisgeigh – but let it go.
Càit an robh mo ghaol – Where was my love?
Bha i air Èirisgeigh – She was on Eriskay.
Stewart Sanderson is a third year PhD student at Glasgow University, working on translation and modern Scottish poetry. His poems have appeared widely in UK and Irish magazines, notably Gutter, Magma, Irish Pages, Poetry Review and The Dark Horse. In summer 2014 he was shortlisted for the inaugural Edwin Morgan Award for Scottish poets under thirty.