Poem of the Week: ‘House of Winter’ by George Mackay Brown

  07 Dec '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Introducing a new volume of poetry The Wreck of the Archangel in 1989, George Mackay Brown wrote ‘There has been no book of poetry from me since Voyages (1983). That doesn’t mean I have stopped writing verse. Poetry and the making of it remains one of the great joys.’ While many of the poems in the volume are about travel and sea-voyages, rooted as they are in the flotsam and jetsam of myth and folk legend that washed up on Orkney’s shores, Mackay Brown was self-declaredly a ‘word-voyager’ and not a world-voyager.

This word-voyager seldom voyages beyond his rocking-chair, and then only to take aboard a small daily cargo of errands from the shops of Hamnavoe, or drink a mug of ale.

The prospect of longer journeys – to Shetland, say, or Nova Scotia, or Norway – make his cheeks blanch.

Is poetry then a fraud? Or is it a quest for ‘real things’, beyond the sea-glitters and shadows on the cave wall? I hope, very much, the latter.

GMB, February 1989 [Introduction to The Wreck of the Archangel]

This poem of winter, from that collection, is firmly grounded in ‘real things’ and their resonance.

House of Winter
by George Mackay Brown

At last, the house of winter. Find
On the sill
Intricate ice jewellery, a snowflake.

Open one dark door. Wind-flung,
A golden moth! Soon
A candle flame, tranquil and tall.

It is a bitter house. On the step
Birds starve.
The sign over the door is warped and faded.

Inside one chamber, see
A bare thorn.
Wait. A bud breaks. It is a white rose.

We think, in the heart of the house
A table is set
With a wine jar and broken bread.

‘House of Winter’ is newly anthologised in Kathleen Jamie’s 2021 selection of Mackay Brown Poems Carve the Runes, published in the centenary year of GMB’s birth.

  • Paperback | Pub: 03 Jun 2021

    George Mackay Brown was a master of the short story form and produced a steady stream of short fiction collections, starting with A Calendar of Love (1967) and include A Time to Keep (1969) and Hawkfall (1974), as well as his poetry collections and…

  • Paperback | Pub: 03 Jun 2021

    In this new Selected Poems, Kathleen Jamie explores the multi-faceted world of George Mackay Brown’s Orkney, the poet’s lifelong home and inspiration. George Mackay Brown’s concerns were the ancestral world, the communalities of work, the…

  • E-Book | Pub: 03 Jun 2021

    First published in 1969, An Orkney Tapestry, George Mackay Brown’s seminal work, is a unique look at Orkney through the eye of a poet. Originally commissioned by his publisher as an introduction to the Orkney Islands, Brown approached the…

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